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By Mike Collett
DURBAN, South Africa, Feb 5 (Reuters) - There is a "special spirit" in the Mali squad ahead of their African Nations Cup semi-final against Nigeria, and not just because of the conflict back home, coach Patrice Carteron said on Tuesday.
Earlier, Stephen Keshi coach of semi-final opponents Nigeria and himself Mali coach three years ago, said the conflict at home was inspiring the Malians and making them harder to beat.
Frenchman Carteron, while not dismissing the significance of the French-led fight against al-Qaeda Islamists in the impoverished west African nation, said there were also footballing reasons why Mali had reached the last four of the competition for the second successive time.
"We showed a very good mentality in the games against Ghana and Congo. A special spirit emerged and it made me feel better, stronger," he said ahead of Wednesday's semi-final at the Moses Mabhida stadium.
"When we started three weeks ago, most of my players had not played for a while. We knew it would be very difficult to win the first game against Niger, but beat them 1-0.
"Then against Ghana (lost 1-0) and Congo (drew 1-1) we played with a lot of confidence and now I think everything is possible.
"I think it was more difficult a few months ago and when the country was invaded. Now the players just want to give a present back to the country.
"The atmosphere in Mali is unbelievable - people are much happier because we are getting close to the end of the war and because the national football team is in the semi-finals. It is a fantastic story."
Mali secured their place in the last four with probably their best performance to date, a 3-1 penalty shootout win over hosts South Africa, after a 1-1 draw in Durban on Saturday.
The winners of Wednesday's match will play either Ghana or Burkina Faso in Sunday's final.
"I think once you get through to the semi-finals, then you must believe you can win the tournament," Carteron said.
"I think you saw the spirit again against South Africa; I have a very special group of players."
Captain Seydou Keita, a former Barcelona player who, at 32, now plays in China for Dalian Aerbin and has been central to Mali's progress, said the team needed to concentrate on their aim of becoming African champions for the first time.
"The motivation not only comes from what is happening back home but also to stay focused on the game and get through to the final," Keita said.
One player who will miss out on Wednesday, despite his heroics in saving two penalties against South Africa, is goalkeeper Soumalia Djakite. Carteron confirmed that first-choice keeper Mamadou Samassa, suspended for the quarter-final, will return to the starting lineup.
Carteron said the team were sending a Mali shirt, signed by the squad, to former South African president Nelson Mandela, who has been in ill-health.
"We wanted to meet him but it was not possible so we are sending him a shirt and want him to know we pray for him. For me it is very special; thank you Mr Mandela, for saving our souls," he said.
"I could not think of coming to this country without paying my respects to such a man." (Editing by Clare Fallon)