The ongoing CAF Africa Cup of Nations has so far seen a rejuvenated Mali impress during the group phase, edging out Niger 1-0 in the opener and drawing with Congo DR 1-1 to set up a mouth-watering quarter-final showdown with South Africa on Saturday. Skippered by former Barcelona star Seydou Keita and featuring a host of talented youngsters, the Eagles remain on target to surpass their last-four finish in the 2004 edition.
Their amazing run in the continental campaign nine years ago, of course, was largely attributed to striking-ace Frederic Kanoute. The French-born forward was on target four times, including opening the scoring in the 2-1 quarter-final defeat of Guinea as his side stormed into the semi-finals. Although a four-goal tally saw him finish tournament joint top-scorer alongside the likes of Patrick Mboma and Jay-Jay Okocha, their 4-0 semi-final loss to Morocco and failure to take the continental crown still cuts deep.
"Our failure to win the African title and to qualify for a World Cup is the biggest disappointments of my career," the 35-year-old marksman told FIFA.com. "But that is life. Although I am not playing for the national team anymore, I hope this young generation can achieve these goals."
Having seen his side's brilliant display thus far, Kanoute is hoping Mali continue to show form on the African scene and bring a smile to the citizens of his conflict-troubled nation.
"I believe a breakthrough will come soon," he said. “Our country is going through a difficult period and there are of course some urgent problems to tackle. But a great performance in the Cup of Nations will give a sense of hope for our brothers and sisters in Mali."
The continental final competition, according to Kanoute, provides the Malians with a chance to not only inspire the people through their performances, but also to prepare for the forthcoming second qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ where they will open against Rwanda on 22 March.
"Qualifying for a world cup is always a long and hard process,” he said. “Football in Africa has made great progress over recent years so all the teams are competitive. With so many sides battling for only a few qualifying spots, there is no easy games. But inside me I believe Mali can make it through [to our first FIFA World Cup] at the God's will."
After his eye-catching showing at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations, the towering striker went on to feature significantly for Mali on the road to Germany 2006, with the side progressing to the final round only to crash out due, in part, to their away form. Kanoute scored eight times during their bid for FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010 qualification, but again a lack of consistency cost them dearly as they stumbled at the final hurdle.
At club level, after spells with the likes of Lyon, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur, Kanoute spent seven seasons with Sevilla during which he racked up 88 goals in 209 appearances. He departed for pastures new last June, joining Chinese Super League side Beijing Guoan.
"My time in Sevilla was wonderful, personally and professionally," said Kanoute, who, in 2007, was the first player born outside the continent to win the African Player of the year award. "But after my contract expired, I wanted to take new challenges in life so I moved to China. I am happy in Beijing and will give my best to my new team."
Asked about the goals he has set for the coming year, he acknowledged he is now focusing on his club career having called time on his national team career after their failed campaign for South Africa 2010.
"I hope I'll be able to help Beijing as much as possible, scoring goals in my second season and helping the team improve with my experiences,” he said. “I'd like to win a title with the capital club."
Despite his international retirement, Kanoute conceded Mali remains a special source of pride. "I gave my best when I played for Mali, and representing the national team was always my biggest pride,” said Kanoute. “Although I have decided to retire from international football in order to make way for the youngsters, I will always support the Mali team, even in a different way."