A life less ordinary
Almost anywhere in the world you can get a t-shirt with a variation of the expression, "Football is life, everything else is only detail," emblazoned on it. In most places the actual meaning of that slogan is nothing. It's cute, it's catchy, it speaks to the dedication, commitment, passion and even obsession of lovers of the game but it still does not amount to anything but words.
Sometimes, only sometimes, it does. The 2012 African Nations Cup (ANC) is one of those times. In this tournament, football has stood for life. Not the life that you see in a fan who has spotted themselves on the big screen or in the players that run more in 90 minutes than some people do in nine years. Life that some are willing to risk for the freedom of a nation, life that can and has been taken with a 9mm gun as carelessly as a misdirected pass on the pitch. Life that footballers are campaigning to save.
When the event started, Libya's Walid al Khartoushi was the lifesaver, so to speak. He fought on the frontline with the rebels in the country's recent revolution and was lauded as a war hero. The team managed to qualify despite the troubles in their homeland. They exited the tournament after the group stage, despite valiant attempts to make it to the last eight, which included a draw with Zambia and victory over Senegal.
They were not the only team to have to compete in the shadows of conflict. Senegal played knowing their homeland was enraged by a court decision which would allow their president to run for a third term. Protests in Dakar resulted in civilians clashing with police, tyres were burned, tear gas was sprayed, tanks rolled through the streets and dozens were injured.
Tunisia had their own revolution throughout their qualification campaign, Burkina Faso's played out as an army mutiny entered its fourth city and civilians joined in to show their dissatisfaction with high food prices. Sudan played as damning human rights reports were released on the cost to human life in the secession and formation of South Sudan. More than 100,000 people were displaced and famine affected most of the region.
Now, two of the four semi-finalists will also play against a backdrop of internal strife. Ivory Coast are still recovering from a bloody 2011 when outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down and more than 3,000 were killed in resultant fighting. Although Alasanne Outtara is now safely in power, the reconciliation process is still ongoing.
Mali's wounds are fresher. The Tuareg rebels have resumed their separatist war which had broken out in bursts before, in the early 90s and between 2007 and 2009. Gadaffi is believed to have sponsored their second uprising and many of them spent time in Libya, propping up the Colonel's regime, before returning to north-eastern Mali, with arms, when his regime fell. Last weekend, at least 20 people were killed in the area around Timbuktu, starting what has quickly become a crisis in the country. Doctors Without Borders have withdrawn, because the situation is too dangerous for them, food is in short supply and the country is being pushed to the brink.
War is imminent and one need not look further than the look Seydou Keita's eyes to see how terrifying that thought is. After Mali beat Gabon 5-4 on penalties following a deadlocked quarter-final, Keita made an impassioned plea to the authorities in his home land.
"I'm appealing to the people to stop," Keita said. "It's not normal, we don't do that. We need peace, we are all Malians. The president of the Republic needs to do the most he can to stop it. We are celebrating our win but at the same time we feel very sad. There is a sadness among the players."
Keita started the tournament raising awareness for the Sahel region, an area that stretches across North Africa, which has been hit by a food crisis. He is ending it appealing for the lives of people in Mali. Whether the national team go on to win the Cup or bow out to one of the pre-tournament favourites Ivory Coast will not matter. Keita has raised awareness and even though most football fans can do nothing about the situation in Mali, the mere fact that they know that voices will start spreading the word and ears will listen is good enough.
On the field, Mali have been the least convincing of the last four. They were fortunate to knock out the co-hosts, who played as though they wanted it more. Only when they have been forced to perform better, have they actually done it - in their come from behind win over Botswana in the group stage. They're strong in midfield but probably not strong enough and against an Ivory Coast side which has what they feel is a destiny to fulfil, they may need more than just ordinary strength to progress.
Keita was correct when he said his team have nothing to lose and the pressure is on their opposition, who have not been continental champions since 1992. Mali have been told to have no fear and to mix humility and ambition in the right combination to ensure enjoyment is the result of their efforts.
The pundits want to see an Ivorian-Ghanian final, so the likes of Didier Drogba and the Toure brothers can have a shot at a cup for country rather than club and the Black Stars can complete a journey that started at the 2010 World Cup, when they became the team for all of Africa.
There's no national discord in Ghana but after their fairytale showing in South Africa, there's a little bit of Ghanian in all the continent and one gets the feeling everyone will be slightly pleased if they win.
Zambia have other plans as they look to pay homage to the team which fell in the 1993 airplane disaster. The country has not had a major achievement on the football field to celebrate since that tragedy and the class of 2012 want to pay their respects the only way sportsmen know how. For them, and the other teams competing in the business end of the tournament, football is life, the rest is just detail.