From Hardship To Higher Things

When we talk about footballing achievements, a favourite stock story is of adversity propelling teams to victory. But the team that toils against all the odds and triumphs in the face of adversity seems more than just a Hollywood cliche. Football is littered with famous examples of teams who’ve overcome great obstacles to achieve. Memory is such that we may recall these more readily, but as footballing narrative they are hard to ignore. After Mali’s qualification for the latter rounds of the African Cup of Nations, could they be set for a fairytale victory against the backdrop of the country's political turmoil?

The most memorable feats of footballing triumph despite domestic or political strife have often come with the collision of international football tournaments and the high profile drama of international politics. West Germany’s triumph in 1954, The Miracle of Bern, was at once both a victory in the context of domestic strife – in the wake of World War Two - and the overcoming of a superior rival, the Mighty Magyars, who in the group stages had despatched of West Germany 8-3.

Italy’s 1982 World Cup victory, too, was achieved against the backdrop of domestic scandal as the country reeled from the findings of the Totonero match-fixing affair that implicated several teams and many players and officials. Argentina’s ’78 World Cup triumph, whilst set against a tumultuous domestic context, was slightly different. Arguably aided by the military junta in control of the country, the team’s victory was both in part due to and despite of the strife created by the junta. Prior to the tournament hundreds of the ‘politically suspect’ disappeared; concrete walls were constructed to hide the slums. Yet the junta also wielded it’s influence to help the team; bullying FIFA to switch match officials and allegedly bribing the Peruvian government to guarantee at least a 4-0 loss.

Recent events in Mali have given rise to domestic trouble as the country finds itself at war with the Tuareg-led rebels in the north of the country. Caused in part by a domino effect after the toppling of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya - where hundreds of Malian troops had fought to defend the leader; Mali now finds itself in armed combat with those in the northern territories who’ve long felt ostracised by the southern government.

Germany’s triumph in 1954, The Miracle of Bern, was at once both a victory in the context of domestic strife – in the wake of World War Two - and the overcoming of a superior rival.

Against the backdrop of war back home, the Malian team has performed superbly at this year’s African Cup of Nations in South Africa (the tournament was set to be staged in Libya until last years risings as part of the Arab Spring). As with Zambia last year, the talk is not of personal achievement; it is of winning to bring joy and happiness to those back home.  Whilst Zambia wanted victory to honour the players and staff who died 19 years earlier in a plane crash off the coast of Gabon; Mali speak of victory for those suffering in the present.

The captain Seydou Keita recently confirmed reports that the team had agreed to reduce their bonuses in order to divert funds to the war effort back home. From the outset of this year’s tournament, Mali have accepted the responsibility that comes with being a team playing amidst dire domestic circumstances. And perform they have. Despite losing to Ghana in their second game, they’ve beaten Niger and drawn with DR Congo, which has safely seen them through to the quarterfinal.

Following French intervention, the situation on the ground in Mali seems to have stabilised allowing for African troops to begin to redeploy. The French-led army has also moved today to consolidate their position in the historic city of Timbuktu after Islamic extremists seized it on Monday.

Whilst Zambia wanted victory to honour the players and staff who died 19 years earlier in a plane crash off the coast of Gabon; Mali speak of victory for those suffering in the present.

That the Malian team have managed to progress to the quarterfinals in the shadow of what is happening back home is remarkable. But, is it? After all, sport has often shown that its participants have a propensity for overcoming adversity and indeed using it as motivation. Keita’s words certainly speak of a squad who are determined to achieve success, to distract those caught up in the conflict and offer a ray of hope amidst the suffering and bloodshed that war so often causes.

Up next for Mali are the hosts South Africa, who in 1996 hosted the tournament just four years after their readmission following years of international exile. Set against the backdrop of a country still recovering from the ravages of apartheid and decades of ethnic division, South Africa unexpectedly won; paving the way for further recovery in the newly unified country.

Whilst peace in a warring nation might be beyond Mali, victory in this tournament certainly isn’t. And a quick glance at past victories shows that perhaps, despite everything, this might be Mali’s year.

Written by Dan Byrne

Graphic by Dan Byrne