By Mark Gleeson
PORT ELIZABETH, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Mali are banking on midfield maestro Seydou Keita to stick around for a while so that he can help them to secure a place in the World Cup finals for the first time.
Coach Patrice Carteron said the influential 33-year-old had spurred Mali to finish third at the African Nations Cup and his presence would inspire the rest of the team as they chase a place in Brazil 2014.
Former Barcelona midfielder Keita scored on Saturday as Mali beat Ghana 3-1 to take the bronze medal for a second successive tournament and confirm a place among Africa's top teams.
"Keita is a fantastic leader. He can continue until he is 40. He is such a model professional, who really loves playing the game," Carteron said.
"I hope he will be recognised as the best player at this Nations Cup. He gave so much to his country, not only on the pitch."
Mali will face Rwanda in their next World Cup qualifier in March. They lie third in Group H with three points after one win and one defeat in their opening two group matches.
By finishing third at the Nations Cup, Carteron said Mali were confident of aiming high.
"We are going to have to be strong if we want to be the first side in the history of Mali football to go to a Word Cup," he said.
Keita added: "We have a good chance for the World Cup. It won't be easy but we have a team with an energy. We want to be the first generation from our country to qualify." (Editing by Pritha Sarkar)