The situation in Mali is not simple. When people in the country are living in a conflict zone, the national team is trying to bring hope in the Africa Cup of Nations. When Les Aigles, The Eagles, are getting ready to their next match against Ivory Coast, it brings memories from 2012.
Like many countries in Africa, Mali suffered from tension, war, and a humanitarian crisis. However, the situation in Mali since 2012 involved so many countries, from France, China, and neighboring African countries, and numerous terrorist and extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. In a way, and with its complexity, there is some resemblance between the crisis in Mali and the Balkan wars from the early 1990s.
On its basis, the current conflict is resulting, like many other conflicts around Africa and the Middle East, from ethnic tension between various groups. This conflict emerged many years ago, but its current round started in 2012 when several Tuareg armed corps demanded to be separated from Mali and to establish Azawad, a northern Mali autonomy. The attempt eventually failed, and in 2013 the region was reunited with Mali after French and Chadian troops were sent to the area to support the Malian army.
At the peak of the crisis, in 2012 and 2013, football had a double function for Malian citizens in southern regions of the country, such as the capital Bamako, who were safe from the Islamic terror. On the one hand, it served as a source of refuge from the horrors at the north of the country, especially for some refugees who escaped the northern parts of Mali and remembered in sorrow that football was forbidden. However, for others, it was impossible to concentrate on football while the war was still ongoing. One of them was Salif Keita, the first winner of the African Player of the Year who was quoted saying that "When the war will be over we can find the time to watch the Africa Cup of Nations, at the moment, the attention is drawn to the conflict in the north."
Nevertheless, the national team was perceived back in 2012 and 2013 as a symbol of unity between all people in Mali. Therefore, it is not surprising that when Mali qualified to the AFCON semifinal in 2012 against Ivory Coast, people in Mali were ecstatic.
However, in 2012, Mali who were led then by Seydou Keita, lost to Ivory Coast that eventually was defeated by Zambia in the final. In 2015, when Mali tried to have its revenge at the group stage of AFCON 2015, the game ended in a draw. In fact, since 1977 Mali hasn't succeeded to defeat Ivory Coast in an official match.
Nowadays, the conflict in Mali is still ongoing, and earlier in June, severe attacks by jihadists groups caused the death of 24 children. As a result of the attack, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita stated that Malians need to unite to "allow our nation to survive because this is a question of survival."
In that matter, and maybe like in 2012, potential success in AFCON, especially if it will be through beating Ivory Coast can lead to greater unity in Mali and bring some relief to Malian people. Led by Moussa Marega after an excellent season with Porto, and facing a relatively weak Ivory Coast team in comparison to 2012, maybe the Malian players can finally beat Ivory Coast after more than 40 years and bring some joy within an ongoing crisis.