Mali pin hopes on Keita
Mali hope experienced campaigner Seydou Keita can lead them to the top bracket at the Africa Cup of Nations like he did last year.
The former Barcelona midfielder led a youthful Les Aigles (The Eagles) to a third-place finish in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea last year.
It was their best performance since they came fourth in 2004.
Mali are in Group B with four-time champions Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Niger, and would be expected to battle the Congolese to clinch a place in the knock-out stage with strong title contenders Ghana.
New coach Patrice Carteron, who stepped in after compatriot Alain Giresse could not agree on a new contract, has fortified the west Africans by recalling midfielder Mohamed Laime Sissoko, who missed the 2012 tournament.
They trounced Botswana 7-1 to qualify for South Africa 2013 and sent a warning signal that they are again capable of springing surprises.
The class of Keita has never been in doubt, even when he only played a cameo role at mighty Barcelona and this could again shine through in South Africa.
In the absence of central defender Cedric Kante, Keita has been reinstated as captain and at 33, will again be expected to delive some cheer for a nation that has suffered an uprising in the north of the country.
He has admitted that money was one of the reasons he moved to China last year, but was also quick to add the decision has not blunted his ambitions with the Eagles.
"I will make some money in China, but that is not the only reason I went there. I want to stay in shape and I'm still ambitious.
"There is the 2013 Nations Cup and the 2014 World Cup," said the player who has been a full international for 11 years.
The Mali star helped Chinese club Dalian Aerbian remain in the top flight after he teamed up with them when they were in the relegation zone.
Carteron said Keita may have lost some pace since his switch to China, but he is not concerned because the midfielder has enough class to still lead the team.
"He is very motivated. He has lost a bit of pace, but I'm not worried because I know what he is capable of," said the French coach.
"And with him we hope to do better than last year. We want to prove that despite the problems in the country, football in Mali is okay."