Rebecca Blackwell / AP
Malian players celebrate after defeating host nation South Africa on penalties in their Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinal on Saturday. They are due to play Nigeria in Wednesday's semi-final.
Published at 4:40 a.m. ET: TIMBUKTU, Mali -- The lights are flickering in the hotels of Timbuktu. As night falls, the power is returning. Fleeing jihadists had cut the supplies.
The television screens are switching back to life in time for people to witness an important national event.
It has already been an incredible day in this fabled city. Francois Hollande, the French president, toured its ancient streets a few hours beforehand. He was cheered and even embraced by the people of the town, three weeks after France launched aerial bombardments against Islamist militants.
Now, after ten months of jihadist control, during which playing football and taking part in public celebrations were banned, people are bursting onto the streets beeping their car horns and cheering loudly.
Mali's national soccer team has just beaten South Africa in the Africa Cup of Nations, the continental championships which are held every two years. The tournament is being staged in South Africa, so Mali's opponents had home advantage, making victory all the sweeter.
At a time of crisis for the country, the success of the national side in Mali's favorite sport has helped to promote a sense of unity and pride.
"We will win everything. First we will win the war, then we will win the cup," tourist guide Mamadou Tapily said. "It will ... bring us all together"
Adbullah Cisse, a soccer fanatic who watched Saturday's game wearing the national shirt, said: "Our success has allowed people to lift their spirits and it has given hope to our country at a difficult time. It seems that with the war and the football, suddenly everything is going well for Mali."
Eric Feferberg / AFP - Getty Images
Fans watch the Africa Cup of Nations soccer match between Mali and Ghana in Segou, Mali, on Jan. 24.
Groups of children, inspired by the national success, play soccer matches close to Timbuktu's sand dunes at the edge of the Sahara desert. Their enthusiasm for the sport is only enhanced by claims that Mali's soccer stars have agreed to accept smaller bonuses than agreed in order to help the costs of the country's war efforts. In the minds of many Malians, their decision has cemented the link between military and sporting victories.
Mali's soccer stars will face Nigeria, considered continental giants, in Wednesday's semi-final. If they are defeated they are likely to be celebrated as gallant losers.
If they win, national pride across Mali is certain to reach new heights.
Update at 12:10 p.m. ET: Mali lost 4-1 to Nigeria.
Three weeks after French troops began their assault on northern Mali, Timbuktu is no longer controlled by an extremist group linked to al-Qaida. NBC's Rohit Kachroo reports.