There are moments in history where football and music have sat perfectly together. An inseparable double-act able of catapulting human emotions to places not thought possible. Music is sometimes the only means by which we can comprehend those moments, and the best aid we have to relive them. Thanks to the BBC’s coverage of France 98 rarely can a hint of Garbiel Faure’s ‘Pavane’ go by without daydreams of a plucky Michael Owen or the majesty of Zinedine Zidane. In the last week, a splendid recreation of one of these special moments was orchestrated by Leicester City’s Italian manager Claudio Renieri. The Foxes’ magical Premier League triumph has been made all the more glorious when Andrea Bocelli stepped out to put on a ‘spine-tingling‘ rendition of Nessun Dorma at the King Power Stadium on Sunday, making the official presentation of their title achievement all the more globally and historically resonant. The song is so strongly associated with the sensational Luciano Pavarotti and the romance of Italia 90 it provided the perfect catalyst for further dreaming about a reawakening of football, a collective nostalgia groping for a sign of those ‘better days’ resigned to ones childhood, now lost in the commercial mist of modern football. The dreams of glory had been steadily ground away. Abandoned after so many humiliations. At best they were merely delusions, surely? Thought forever lost to a grotesque contemporary agenda of merchandising, agent fees, and headlines about TV rights, that fledgling optimism has been plucked out like a dusty cassette full of treasured songs.
The 23rd African Cup of Nations of 2002 was held in Mali. In a continent besotted by football West Africa is its powerhouse, contributing the vast majority of winners and participants of previous tournaments. Cameroon, Africa’s most successful international team, won the tournament of 2002, with a good Malian side finishing 4th in its first tournament since 1994. After 2002, Mali’s national side picked up another 4th place finish and later back-to-back bronze medals in 2012-13. With a pair of joint top scorers in the last decade also, it represents an good era of Malian football. But, the natural order was restored, as it all came crashing down in the cruellest of ways in the tournament of 2015. Mali was drawn into a group of death. Cameroon, Guinea and Ivory Coast would battle with Les Aigles in Equatorial Guinea for two precious tickets to the knock-out stages. The end of a tense and frankly ridiculous week in Group D saw five of the six games end as 1 – 1 draws, with Cameroon unexpectedly slumping to the bottom of the group following a 1 – 0 defeat to Ivory Coast, sending Les Éléphants through top. So suddenly it was down to Guinea and Mali for the 2nd and final spot. Level on points, equal on their ‘head-to-head’ records, the same goals scored and same goals conceded. At every turn the teams were statistically inseparable, but someone had to go home. It boiled down to a drawing of lots, with Guinea progressing on nothing more than luck. Imagine the pandemonium if England were booted out of a World Cup after losing a coin-toss to Germany…
Of course, every international tournament needs a song, and the cobbled together unofficial, impulsive tunes always turn out to be much more entertaining than any of the official dross that usually rolled out. So here comes “Mali 2002” a fine specimen of multi-nation, multi-genred thumping, feel-good, comfortably-tacky AfroPop. A beautiful collaborative mess of six artists from a selection of the 2002 tournament’s competing countries. Attributed through YouTube to Algerian singer-songwriter Cheb Mami, the song also has vocals from Mali’s Rokia Traore, Nigerian Afrobeat hero Femi Kuti, Senegalese all-rounder Youssou N’Dour (also a successful actor, businessman and politician) and a set of Congolese: the hip-hop artist Passi and the late, great Papa Wemba, who sadly passed away in April this year. The song summarises all that is great about these peaceful,coming-togethers of different peoples – the vibrancy, the interaction of cultures of ideas, the crazy fun; all facilitated by the passions and marvels of football.
Rokia Traore was the only woman in this pan-African line up. As Mali’s national team enters a period of transition it can look to its youth for those future dreams, that allusive yet recycling optimism. For the first time it appears it can also look to its women. Earlier this month it was announced that Mali would soon be getting its first national women’s football league comprised of a respectable 12 teams. With the popularity, and subsequent wealth, of women’s football growing steadily world-wide, Mali’s women see this as an opportunity to build successful careers and – perhaps one day – proudly carry the hopes of a nation into the prestige and glamour of an international tournament.
And as Mali steps into this new uncharted world, once again the perpetual wisdom of Nessun Dorma will help us transform this into an age of optimism if we but listen. The song, famous for its steady, soaring procession to the most thundering of climaxes summarises the spirit of Leicester City’s story and that of any perennial underdog; it forces us to defy what has come before and dream:
Dilegua, o notte!
Vanish, o night!
Sam Garbett is Public Affairs Coordinator for the Mali Development Group – www.malidg.org.uk.
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