Keita Underlines Importance Of AFCON

Rather than being a mid-season headache for PL managers, Daniel Storey sees AFCON as a place where fairytales come true and causes like Keita's get a stage...

Last Updated: 22/01/13 at 16:51 Post Comment

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Pre-planned messages on t-shirts revealed after scoring a goal may well be my biggest sigh-inducer in the today's game. All inevitably fall under three categories: the banal (Edin Dzeko's 'Happy New Year'), the self-important (Balotelli's 'Why always me?' or James Beattie's 'Obvious') or the sad indictment of society's celebration of the lowest common intelligence (Dimitar Berbatov's 'Keep calm and pass me the ball'). When a man like Berbatov reduces himself to that, I think we all died a little inside.

Such messages highlight footballers' obsession with the self. 'Pass ME the ball'. 'Why always ME?' We have created a game which worships the greedy and abuses the weak of character or unstable of mind. A game which mocks optimism and pisses all over hope. A game which has forgotten its role in society. With that in mind, it is little wonder that our players act as they do.

On Sunday, Malian midfielder Seydou Keita revealed a t-shirt message upon being presented with the Man of the Match award following his country's game against Niger. Thankfully, this time things were a little different. 'Peace for Mali', it read.

It was a simple message, but necessary. Since January 2012 there has been war in Mali, with a military organisation(MNLA) ousting President Toure in March 2012 in an effort to gain political autonomy for the north of the country. In reaction, Islamist groups (including a splinter group of Al-Qaeda) has been battling the MNLA.

With Foreign Aid now invited to assist the country from the UK, USA and France, amongst others, Human Rights Watch has made claims in recent days that Malian security forces have been killing civilians as violence escalates further between the military and Islamist groups. Keita's message was a simple bid to plead to stop a conflict that has caused 2,000 deaths and 375,000 people to be displaced in a year, and shows little sign of abating.

But what's all this 'real life' stuff from Keita, does he not realise that he is a footballer? Shouldn't he have been 'bantering' with his team mates after victory? Shouldn't his interview have been limited to "taking each game as it comes" and "proud of the boys"? Well, perhaps Keita understands the importance of his role, and the difference he can make. His message was not composed through an obsession with the self, but in recognition of others.

In January 2012, Keita became an Oxfam campaigner against starvation in Africa: "If we act now we could save the lives of women and children who are always the first victims of food crises."

During last year's AFCON (which began shortly after the outbreak of war in Mali), Keita broke down in tears after his side reached the semi-finals: "I'm appealing for people to stop. It's not normal, we don't do that. We need peace, we are all Malians."

And finally, on Monday, Keita reiterated his hope for peace. "We felt set for kick-off. However, our thoughts and hearts are focused on the situation in Mali. We are thinking of our families and the entire nation. We have faith that peace will return, but cannot stop thinking of those back home."

Can you imagine such dignified and considered statements from many others in our game? So Wayne, how did you rate your performance today? "I was very happy, but just wanted to take this chance to thank fans for watching at a time when all may not be well domestically" "Nice to hear your own fans booing you, that's loyal supporters."

Opposite reactions, different mentalities. One of those considers his own feelings to be superior of the watching (and paying) public, the other comprehends his responsibility and duty. And Keita's example is the exception rather than the rule.

Football does matter to players, I understand that, but we cannot allow our game to become another victim of self-obsession. We have to regain the concept that Bill Shankly was wrong. It isn't a matter of life or death, or anywhere near as important.

But neither is it 'just a game'. Jonathan Wilson recalls meeting an elderly man on the joyous streets of Mali's capital city Bamako in 2002, after the hosts had beaten Algeria to qualify for the quarter-finals. With a grin lighting up a craggy face, the man exclaimed, "This is the best night since independence."

That's it, that's what I'm after, that's what football should do. Rather than cause arguments about diving, fights about bragging rights and the collective shaking of heads over a lack of patience or humility, football should inspire. It should provide escape from the strife of life.

And that's it, that's what I'm after, that's what footballers should do. Rather than cause arguments and the collective shaking of heads over a lack of loyalty or common decency, footballers should appreciate the good they can do, the responsibilities they have and the difference they can make.

The African Cup of Nations is a beautiful tournament because teams are often not playing simply for personal or collective glory, but instead playing for their people. Started in 1957 at a time when the continent was warped through colonisation, the tournament acts as a symbol of the stumbling march of Africa's progression. It has caused entire populations to demonstrate emotions of sadness, anger, amazement and joy at events that don't actually matter, thus allowing that necessary escape.

Last year, Libya's team played for unity despite political in-fighting at home, a group passionate and proud to represent a free state. Zambia's players sobbed after their victory, dedicated to a squad decimated by a plane crash in 1993. Eight of the 16 nations competing in this year's AFCON are listed as having ongoing military conflict back home. Every team seems to have a back story, and almost every team has suffered adversity in order to simply take part. This is fairytale minus the twee Hollywood sentimentality.

This year, that story is Keita's. As captain of his country, he recognises that millions of people will use the fortunes of a team as respite from the rigours of war through no fault of their own. He has used the publicity of the tournament to raise awareness (without watching the game, I wouldn't have thought to write the piece) and will hope to act as an ambassador for his nation. Sometimes, mercifully, footballers do get it right.

Daniel Storey - find him on Twitter @danielstorey85

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