Mali on course for status jump
© AFP

Mali's hopes of a first-ever appearance at a FIFA World Cup™ finals may well be fading fast, but the evolution of the nation into a potential footballing superpower on the African continent continues unabated.

The west Africans emerged strongly from the first phase of the continent's qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa and were considered among the favourites going into the final phase of the preliminary competition. However, they have run headlong into a powerful Ghanaian side and are coming off second best, likely denying a talented generation of players a chance to go to South Africa next June.

But there is every sense that the Eagles are going to still be a force to reckoned with as they build a team on the back of some real quality footballers, brimming with overseas club experience of the highest calibre. Mali have a quartet of world-class talent guiding their fortunes and several auxiliary stars that head coach Stephen Keshi is moulding into a cohesive unit.

Real Madrid work horse Mahamadou Diarra is the captain of the team and it can be argued his long term injury problems have probably cost Mali a potential FIFA World Cup spot. He has missed all of this year's qualifying campaign, including the vital game with the Black Stars of Ghana back in June.

The similar absence through injury of Mohamed Sissoko of Juventus has also been a factor, robbing the side of star power at a time when they needed it most. Seydou Keita from Barcelona and Sevilla striker Frederic Kanoute, a former African Footballer of the Year, are the two other pivots around whom the team operates.

For me, Stephen Keshi is not only a trainer but firstly one of the greats of African football. Today he tries to impart that knowledge to us.
Mali's Djimi Traore

Mali are likely to qualify for the next CAF African Cup of Nations and in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking have moved to the verge of the top 50. They are up five places into 53rd in the global standings, which were released on Wednesday 2 September - a jump which puts them into Africa's exclusive top ten.

This elevation comes after an emphatic 3-0 win over neighbours and rivals Burkina Faso in their last international, a friendly played in France in August. It is likely the country will continue to move closer to their highest ranking position of 35th, which they achieved just over two years ago.

It could well be that the disappointment of missing out on a debut at the first-ever FIFA World Cup in Africa produces a backlash that turns Mali into a dangerous force at the African finals in Angola in January. Once Diarra and Sissoko return to the side, then the combination with Keita and Kanoute would suggest they could well be a team to beat.

Coach Keshi, an iconic player in his time as Nigeria captain, can also call on experienced defender Adama Coulibaly of Auxerre in France and striker Mamadou Samassa of Valenciennes, who has recently declared his intention to play for Mali after being capped by France at junior level.

Keshi has also been able to persuade defender Djimi Traore to return to the national team after a long-term exile, self-imposed by the player after falling out with officials. Traore won the UEFA Champions League with English club Liverpool and is now at Monaco in France.

It seems Keshi has a chance to take his side to a new level and has the full confidence of his players. "For me, Stephen Keshi is not only a trainer but firstly one of the greats of African football. Today he tries to impart that knowledge to us," concluded Traore.