DURBAN, South Africa - Despite enjoying every minute of his years in charge of Mali's national side, Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi will do everything he can to knock his former team out of the African Nations Cup semifinals on Wednesday.
Keshi said Tuesday that he was treated extremely well when he led Mali from 2008-10 and is still in contact with many of the players. He regretted the current political instability there, but believes the players are drawing strength from what's happening back home.
"I had two wonderful years in Mali," Keshi said. "The public, the people of Mali were so nice to me. And I enjoyed every minute. Up to today we still have very good relationships. They want to know how I am feeling, I want to know how they are doing. So it's been a good relationship going on."
Nigeria and Mali will play in Durban hoping to make it to the final after several close calls in recent years. Nigeria reached the semifinals in six of the last eight tournaments but hasn't made it to the decisive match since 2000. Mali has advanced to the semifinals for the second straight time, and fourth overall since 2002, but it hasn't reached the final since 1972.
Despite his close relationship with the Malians, Keshi said his only worry on Wednesday will be to help lead Nigeria to the final.
"When it comes to my job, it's either I am a professional or I am not. But in this case of tomorrow I am going to be highly professional to my team, and then come back after the game and say 'hi' (to the Mali players) and that'll be it."
The 51-year-old Keshi, who as captain led Nigeria to its last African title in 1994, is well aware of the conflicts in northern Mali.
"I think it's a shame what is going on in Mali because it's a great place, great country, wonderful people. It's a place that I love," Keshi said. "What is going on is not something we should be proud of. I think the players are thinking about that and I think that's where they are getting their power from, that's where their forces are coming from."
Keshi lost his job as Mali coach after the team was eliminated in the group stage of the 2010 African Cup. He coached Togo briefly before taking over for his native country in late 2011. He has revamped the Nigeria and has won praise for calling up several players from local clubs.
Keshi said that African nations should be careful when choosing European coaches to their national teams, saying that it's only worth doing it if they are top-notch managers.
"Do not bring a mediocre coach, a carpentry coach from Europe and tell me he's better than me, I will not accept it," he said. "And this is what we Africans are doing. Because if you want to bring in a classic and experienced coach from Europe, I am ready to learn from that coach, because he is better than me, he has more knowledge than me."
Keshi made it clear that he wasn't against having "a white coach in Africa, because I have always worked with white coaches."
"We have quality ex-African players, coaches now, that can do the same thing, but you are not giving them the opportunity because they are just black dudes, I don't like it, that's all."
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