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21.01.2008 Football News

Beware Benin,a small team that thinks big

By SA tIMES
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Romuald Boco knows what it?s like to play for small teams. But he thinks big.

The defender is part of Benin's team at the African Nations Cup. The country is one of the smallest on the continent and is not known for its football stars.

And Boco plays for Accrington Stanley, one of the smallest professional clubs in England. They were recently promoted from a district league into the English League Two.

Tonight Benin take on Mali, considered to be one of the favourites to win the title.

Boco has no illusions about Benin, known as the Squirrels, upsetting the odds in the Nations Cup.

''Going through from Group B appears too hard for us. Just qualifying was a massive surprise,'' he said. The other two teams in the group are Ivory Coast and Nigeria.

But Boco does see some hope.

''In qualifying we held Mali twice and scored four goals against Togo. Maybe our rivals are wrong to assume they'll beat us,'' he warned.

The game is in Group B, where the teams are based in Sekondi, an industrial city in the south west of Ghana.

Mali are even considered potential winners by former African Footballer of the Year Kalusha Bwalya of Zambia.

However, being in the same group as Ivory Coast and Nigeria makes their task of qualifying for the knockout rounds difficult.

Mali have Spanish-based stars in midfielders Seydou Keita and Mahamadou Diarra and striker Frederic Kanoute.

They need a convincing win over Benin to get their campaign off to a solid start. And their first meeting with Benin at the Nations Cup finals is unlikely to be a pleasure cruise given that the West Africa countries were in the same qualifying group and both games produced draws.

However hard the Malians try to play down the role of match favourites, the pressure is on French coach Jean-Francois Jodar and his largely Europe-based squad with Benin considered the second weakest team in Ghana after Namibia.

Kanoute yesterday played down the Mali-Benin game, emphasising the other match in the group.

''We have good players, but not a pool of world-class performers like Ivory Coast and Nigeria which creates fierce competition in all positions,'' said Kanoute.

''Mali make up for that deficiency by being a very close-knit group and I believe a place in the knockout phase is possible even though we are in the toughest of the four groups.''

Diarra and Kanoute were among five 2007 African Footballer of the Year contenders and when the list was trimmed to three on Saturday, the striker was still there with Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast and Michael Essien of Ghana.

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