By Mike Collett
DURBAN, South Africa, Feb 5 (Reuters) - The conflict at home has made Mali's players more determined than ever to do well in the Africans Nations Cup, Stephen Keshi, coach of their semi-final opponents Nigeria, said on Tuesday.
"It is a great shame what is going on in Mali," said Keshi, who coached the Mali team for two years.
"It is a great place, a great country, with wonderful people and I place that I love. If I ever had the possibility of going back there to work someday I would surely go back.
"What is happening is something we should not be proud of. I know their players will be thinking about it, and that is where they are getting their power from, their spirit, their force.
"They are thinking that whatever is going on back home, whatever killings, what they can do here is put back a smile on the face of the people of Mali.
"They are thinking: 'Let us do this for our country' and I think that's where their force is coming from."
Mali has been beset by conflict since a coup last March and French troops have been leading an assault on Islamist rebels linked to al Quaeda, taking back territory in the north in a three-week offensive.
Even without the extra motivation, Keshi knows that his men face tough opponents at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on Wednesday. The winners will play either Ghana or Burkina Faso in Sunday's final in Johannesburg.
Mali have looked strong and organised in reaching the last four, and even though they needed penalties to overcome South Africa in the quarter-finals, they looked far more impressive than the hosts. In Seydou Keita, the former Barcelona midfielder, they possess one of the most effective players in the tournament.
"Mali is a footballing nation with great talent, I saw it in my two years there. I have a lot of respect for them and a lot of admiration for the Mali team and the players," Keshi said.
"But we are preparing ourselves. It will be an even tougher game than against the Ivory Coast. We will use whatever God gave us to play football and we will try and put it all together against Mali."
Keshi must decide whether to restore Fegor Ogude to the starting line-up in midfield, after he was suspended against Ivory Coast, or keep the same starting lineup, retaining Ogenyi Onazi who came in for Ogude and did a fine job in the 2-1 win over the Ivorian favourites on Sunday.
Ogude has qualities as a defensive midfielder but Onazi is a more versatile player who looks better going forward and he could well retain his place.
Keshi, skipper when Nigeria last took the title in Tunisia in 1994, is bidding to become only the second man to win it as both player and coach after Egypt's Mahmoud El Gohary, who won as a player in 1959 and a coach in 1998.
Even if he succeeds, he said he was not certain to stay on and lead his country to the World Cup finals in Brazil next year.
"We are professionals. If God grants me the cup, and I win it for Nigeria, who knows? The next day I may have to pack my load and leave for another country. I could stay in Nigeria, I could leave.
"I am a professional coach but Nigeria is where my heart is, this is the team I captained for 14 years and I am here for now but after the tournament we will see if there is anyone out there." (Editing by Clare Fallon)