Seydou Keita has emerged as the undisputed leader of an exciting young Mali side six months after returning from a 20-month hiatus from the international game.
The 32-year-old Barcelona midfielder was carried high on the shoulders of his team mates after scoring the decisive penalty in the shootout against Gabon in their Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final on Sunday.
It was an unlikely scenario a year ago when he was still refusing to play for the team in protest at what he saw as bad organisation by the country's football federation.
"It wasn't easy to score that penalty but this win is as good as any I've had at Barcelona," said Keita, who took centre stage at a news conference while coach Alain Giresse and captain Cedric Kante listened attentively.
"I'm one of the older players in the team but I feel younger than any of the other squad members right now."
Keita ignored his country's call-ups after the 2010 Nations Cup in Angola, where much was expected from Mali before they went out in the first round.
Persuaded back in September last year, he competed in the last two qualifiers to ensure Mali's participation at the tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon and is now at the heart of a side that has undergone much change under Giresse.
His shoulder draped with a Mali flag, Keita defended his lengthy self-imposed exile and spoke of his loyalty.
"It's not normal not to play for one's country but I had objections and reasons," he said.
"There were other players too," he added, citing the example of former Liverpool midfielder Momo Sissoko, who has ended his international career with similar misgivings."
Keita had first made a tearful appeal for peace in his country, where a Tuareg insurgency in the north of the country has led to an estimated 10,000 people being displaced, before his mood brightened as he spoke of matters on the pitch.
He converted the winning kick as Mali beat Gabon 5-4 on penalties following a 1-1 draw to reach the semi-finals, where they will play Ivory Coast in Libreville on Wednesday.
"This is something special for me because I'm not getting any younger," Keita said.
"It was difficult to keep going for 120 minutes but I'm really happy. We have a team under reconstruction and a lot of new players who are competing up to their potential."comments