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Mali bring cheer with Africa Cup of Nations progress

updated 4:43 PM EST, Mon January 28, 2013
Mali football fans, some significantly sporting hats in French colors, follow their team at the Nations Cup in South Africa.
Mali football fans, some significantly sporting hats in French colors, follow their team at the Nations Cup in South Africa.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mali draw 1-1 with Democratic Republic of Congo to qualify for last eight of Nations Cup
  • Ghana top Group B after thumping Niger 3-0 in Port Elizabeth
  • Mali to meet hosts South Africa in quarterfinals, while Ghana will meet Cape Verde

(CNN) -- Mali's footballers brought some welcome relief to their compatriots when drawing 1-1 with the Democratic Republic of Congo to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals.

The point in Durban enabled the West Africans to go through in second place, behind Group B winners Ghana who outclassed Niger 3-0 in Port Elizabeth.

On a day when French-led troops took hold of the historic city of Timbuktu as Mali authorities continue their battle to loosen Islamist militants' grip on the country's north, the team nicknamed the Eagles booked their place in the last eight.

Read: French-led forces in Mali take Timbuktu

Perhaps fittingly, the football success was also engineered with the help of a Frenchman as Patrice Carteron ensured his side progressed to a knockout clash against hosts South Africa.

Mali, who finished third at last year's Nations Cup, recovered from going a goal behind to Dieumerci Mbokani's third-minute penalty to draw level 11 minutes later through Mahamadou Samassa.

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The Eagles could have taken the lead late on when substitute Cheick Tidiane Diabate hit the post before midfielder Seydou Keita was denied by Congolese goalkeeper Robert Kidiaba, 37, in stoppage time.

After Mali opened their Group B campaign with a 1-0 over group outsiders Niger, former Barcelona star Keita wore a T-shirt with the words "Peace for Mali" as he gathered his man of the match award.

At the 2012 finals, Mali's most decorated footballer -- who boasts three Spanish La Liga titles and two European Champions League medals among other trophies -- had broken down in tears as Islamists took control of the north of his country amidst fierce fighting.

During a news conference in South Africa earlier this month, the Eagles captain announced his desire for one of Mali's allies --- "be it France or our neighbors" -- to return order to the north of the country as quickly as possible.

He had also mentioned that the Islamist militants' ban on watching sports on television, among other measures such as outlawing music and smoking, meant that some people in the north would have been unable to gain relief from the conflict by following the Eagles in South Africa.

"Our country is in one of the most difficult moments of its history," he said after Monday's draw with the Congolese.

"Malians are regaining control of the north and our qualification will bring joy to the people. I am very proud."

While Mali will seek to reach the semifinals for the second tournament in a row against Bafana Bafana in Durban, Ghana will face high fliers Cape Verde in Saturday's first quarterfinal.

Read: Cape Verde have Nations Cup lift-off

The Black Stars, who are the second favorites to win the competition behind Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast side, beat Niger with goals from Asamoah Gyan, Christian Atsu and John Boye.

"We stepped up our game and won against a good Niger team," said Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah, a squad member when the Black Stars last won the Cup of Nations 31 years ago in Libya.

"We hope to do better as we progress in this competition."

Ghana were beaten in the semifinals last year by Zambia, who will look to book their berth in the last eight when taking on Group C leaders Burkina Faso on Tuesday.

In the day's other game, Nigeria's Super Eagles need a win against Ethiopia to be sure of avoiding early elimination from the finals.

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