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banner Friday, 14 December, 2001, 13:19 GMT
Is Mali ready for Nations' Cup?
Banako's 26 March stadium
The 26 March stadium will be the showpiece of Mali 2002
By BBC Sport Online's Joan Baxter

The countdown to Mali 2002 has begun, and on the surface, it looks as if all systems are go.

On 4 December, the Chinese construction firm that performed the miracle of getting much of the infrastructure in place, handed Mali's prime minister, Mande Sidibe, the keys to the impressive 26 March stadium in Bamako.

It is the venue where Mali will take on Liberia in the opening match of the Nations' Cup on 19 January 2002.

The stadia in the four outlying venues - Sikasso, Segou, Kayes and Mopti - have been completed, and each will host an international friendly match before the Nations' Cup starts.

Sory Ibrahima Makanguile, president of the organising committee, says he has not slept properly in three years and admits there are still many "difficult moments ahead".

Bamako's second venue, Keita stadium
Work on the Keita stadium has barely started

Organisers are still struggling with last-minute headaches.

In November they had to find an extra 1m to build a new boulevard to the 26 March stadium, to prevent a repeat of the chaos that marred the first matches held there during the Bamako Tournament in October.

On that occasion, more than 20 people were injured when police were forced to fire tear gas into the crowd.

Organisers are also negotiating with South Africa for help with transport, including aeroplanes to ferry teams, officials and journalists to Kayes, almost inaccessible by road.

Renovations have barely begun on the rundown Modibo Keita stadium, the second venue in the Malian capital.

Malians sceptical

Elsewhere car rental agencies are scrambling to find more vehicles before January, athletes' villages are still not completed and construction crews are working round the clock to finish building new hotels to ease accommodation problems in a country where even at the best of times, good hotel rooms are hard to come by.

Kayes stadium
Organisers still don't know how they will get people to Kayes
And that's not all.

As Makanguile says, "It's one thing to succeed in getting the infrastructure in place, it's another to make the Cup of Nations succeed."

Many Malians, once highly sceptical that their country, one of the poorest in the world, could or should host such an expensive sporting extravaganza estimated to have cost more than 100m, have now begun worrying about football itself.

With a dismal third place showing in the Amilcar Cabral Cup in November and a humiliating 3-0 defeat in a friendly match against the Ivory Coast on 5 December, many Malians are fearful that their Eagles will not make it past the first round.

If that were to happen, there is concern that the Malian public would not fill the stadia for the remainder of the tournament, despite the rock-bottom (50p) prices for match tickets.

Nevertheless, optimists in Mali, led by outgoing President Alpha Oumar Konare who has made this event his swansong, seem to have no doubts that Mali 2002 is going to be a "beautiful party", launched with an opening ceremony "the likes of which Africa has never seen".

See also:

08 Sep 01 |  Football
Mali celebrate cup draw
07 Sep 01 |  Cup of Nations
Mali preparations on target
15 Oct 01 |  Africa
Mali win Bamako tournament
17 Oct 01 |  Africa
High hopes for Mali
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