The Mali-Burkina Faso match, in the round of 16 of the African Cup of Nations (CAN) on Tuesday January 30 in Korhogo, is more than a derby between neighbors. The opposition between the two Sahelian countries is akin to a duel between twins. If the two countries went to war in 1974 and then between 1985 and 1986, they have been living a parallel trajectory for around ten years: jihadist attacks, political destabilization, coups d’état, break with France and rapprochement with the Russia.

Mali opened the ball of putsch in August 2020, followed by Burkina Faso in January 2022. The soldiers who respectively lead the two countries, Colonel Assimi Goïta in Mali and Captain Ibrahim Traoré in Burkina Faso, took power by overthrowing their predecessor himself came to power after a coup d’état. In this new coup alliance which is taking shape in the Sahel, Assimi Goïta appears as a silent precursor while Ibrahim Traoré appears as an impetuous cadet. A sign of their understanding and their desire to unite their destiny, they jointly announced, on January 28, with their Nigerien counterpart their decision to leave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

To measure the evolution underway since the military came to power, the songs and outfits of the supporters are a fairly reliable indicator. From the start of the CAN, the Malian delegation, sent by the ministry of sports, was quick to show its support for the putschist colonel. “Assiiiimi, Assiiiimi! », chanted the supporters in chorus during the first victorious match of the Eagles of Mali against the South Africans (2-0), on January 16, in the aisles of the Amadou Gon Coulibaly stadium in Korhogo.

Some of them dressed in colorful fatigues and even “Assimi” flocked jerseys, they exchanged a military salute with the players at the end of the match. “The supporters asked the players to do this military salute after each goal,” explains Baba Cissouma, general director of Malian radio Maliba FM in Bamako. Today, you sing to the glory of Assimi, you are accepted. We are proud of the president. In Mali, patriotic fiber is at its peak. »

Support from their large diaspora

Assimi Goïta is presented by the journalist as “a big football fan”. Since he came to power, several stadiums have been renovated, such as the one on March 26 in Bamako. Another is due to emerge in Timbuktu. In a context of heightened nationalism, selection is a priority for the ruling junta. The Eagles were thus able to calmly prepare for their competition: a five-star hotel built for them was opened in December in Bamako as well as a center intended for high-level athletes and a new training ground.

“Our authorities have understood the social importance of football. He is the opium of the people,” confides Djibril Traoré, advisor to the president of the Malian Football Federation. “The country has not had a high-level working tool for years,” continues Cédric Kanté, former captain of the Malian selection. The new infrastructures now benefit the national team, the local championship and the academies… Political problems have not allowed the federation to have a long-term vision. From now on, it tends to become more professional. »

The successes of Mali during the first round of this CAN are also a remarkable communication instrument for the power in place. “Football for the authorities, I would say that it is opportunism, thinks Sékou Tangara, director of information at Africable, a pan-African television channel based in Bamako. They understood that football was very important for the populations and that a victory for the Eagles offers several weeks of social tranquility. People forget everyday problems like repeated power cuts. »

Malians, like their Burkinabe neighbors, will be able to count in Korhogo and the rest of Ivory Coast on the support of their considerable diaspora. Around 3 million Malians and at least as many Burkinabés reside in the country, according to official figures. Nationals of the two countries rub shoulders in the large city of northern Ivory Coast, where they often work in the same sectors of activity: commerce and transport. The borders of the two countries are less than 150 kilometers away, which promises a large crowd in the 20,000-seat stadium built for the CAN.

Loose ties with Ivory Coast

Since the start of the tournament, the Stallions of Burkina Faso say they are “galvanized” by their reunion with their supporters. For three years and the suspension by the African Football Confederation of the August 4 stadium in Ouagadougou, they have been playing their home matches outside Burkina Faso, mainly in Morocco.

Enthusiastic, the Burkinabés do not wave military symbols in the stands. “We don’t need to do this for the president to know that we adhere to his policy,” assures Stallions supporter Roger Zami. Supporters from both teams met before the match to share some signs of friendship. Some even planned to exchange scarves. “They are our brothers, we have similar trajectories, geography and society, we are linked,” continues the supporter.

The links of Mali and Burkina Faso with Côte d’Ivoire, the organizing country of the CAN, are on the other hand distended. The relationship between Bamako and Abidjan became strained between July 2022 and January 2023 when 49 Ivorian soldiers who came within the framework of the United Nations were taken prisoner in Mali, accused of being mercenaries who had come to destabilize the Malian transition. It is barely better between Ouagadougou and Abidjan since Ibrahim Traoré’s coup. The latter perceives Abidjan as the refuge of his enemies when Ivory Coast criticizes him for not keeping his security promises.

In this tense geopolitical context, a quarter-final will undoubtedly offer a clash with a strong symbolic charge since the winner of the Mali-Burkina Faso match will face Ivory Coast in Bouaké, a crossroads city for its two diasporas.