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PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa – With a simple act and a clear statement, captain Seydou Keita linked Mali's soccer team at the African Cup of Nations to the conflict at home.
Keita wrapped a Mali flag around himself after his team came from behind to beat host South Africa and reach the semifinals at the African Cup.
"It (the flag) flies not only in the northern part of Mali, and not only in the south of Mali, but also outside Mali," Keita said at Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium on South Africa's east coast. "That is important. Only football can do that."
In January, France unilaterally launched a military intervention to stem the advance of al-Qaida-linked fighters in Mali.
"Today we can keep our heads up as Malians, we are proud of being Malians. I think all the people of Mali are proud," said Keita, whose country is trying to win its first African title.
Mali's players and French coach Patrice Carteron had initially played down the effect of the violence at home, talking of the need to concentrate on soccer.
But Keita left no doubt that the battle to liberate northern Mali was now central to the team's campaign after it regrouped from a 1-0 deficit to beat South Africa in a penalty-kick shootout, overcoming an intimidating crowd of 50,000.
Keita, a former Barcelona midfielder, scored the tying goal to revive the Malians. Goalkeeper Soumaila Diakite made two decisive saves in the shootout.
Twice now in the last two African Cups, Mali has fallen behind to the host country in front of a home crowd in the quarterfinals. Twice it has picked itself up and won in the drama of penalty shootouts.
Mali's player huddled at the end of the game in Durban. They have forged close bonds, thinking about more than just a soccer game or a tournament as they try to better their semifinal appearance and eventual third place of 12 months ago.
"Our biggest motivation is to make Malian people and all the supporters happy," striker Modibo Maiga said. "Even if it was difficult for us to qualify, we do not want to repeat what happened last year. We want to do better than last year."
Last year in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Keita made statements about the need for peace in his homeland. Now, the team's 33-year-old leader is driving his team forward while pleading for his country's search for stability.
"I won everything in football," said Keita, who has lifted trophies in France and Spain and won the Champions League and Club World Cup twice. "I won all the titles. Today the only thing I want is to bring joy to my country."
Carteron understands what Keita means to the team.
"He practically is some of the players' spiritual father," the coach said. "He is an extraordinary man."