Call it a tradition if you will. On the first Wednesday of every month, a television channel in Mali shows a recent Bollywood flick. Not surprising then that Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan enjoy unrivalled popularity in the West African country located over 8000 kilometres away from India.
You would expect the Mali teenagers, who are in Navi Mumbai for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, to be buzzing at the prospect of visiting the houses of the Bollywood mega stars. After all, they are at the home of Bollywood and within a few kilometres of the movie icons' houses.
However, the Mali footballers are in India with one focus: football.
"We have managed to help the players channelise their energy in a good direction. The players concentrate on the work they are here for rather than getting involved with the nitty-gritties of the local culture," Mali team's media manager Tangara Yacouba said on Wednesday.
That's precisely why, in the two days that the African team has been in Navi Mumbai, the players have been to precisely two locations, their hotel and the training venue. Paraguay, who are in Group B along with Mali, gave their players a day off training on Sunday, and their players were seen spending time at a popular local mall.
The Malian federation has also implemented strict social media curbs on their players. Officials from the federation have befriended or followed the players on social media platforms, thereby keeping the players in check.
"During tournaments, using social media is prohibited. It's a distraction! Back home, the players are free to do what they want. Here, our focus is only on football," Yacouba said.
"It is all about priorities. The players will follow the rules and regulations meant for them. We have divided their day, the players know when to enjoy and when to be serious," added Mali coach Jonas Komla.
It would be safe to say that Mali's U-17 teenagers have come to India with the metaphorical blinkers on. While you may not begrudge a teenager thinking about being the next Vinicius Junior and earning a multi-million-dollar deal from a Real Madrid or Barcelona considering their scouts will be in attendance at the U-17 World Cup, Komla said his players would not be swayed by external factors.
"I want my players to play well rather than focus on who is looking at them," he said.
Mali's story is the story of Africa — heavyweights at the U-17 level, but nothing more than also-rans when it comes to the senior tournaments. The nation has never qualified for the FIFA World Cup but have won the African U-17 title the last two times and reached the U-17 World Cup final in 2015.
While many believe that Mali could go all the way this time around, Komla dismissed the notion of there being favourites at the tournament.
“At this level all teams are equal. There is no favourite. No one has arrived here by accident,” he said.
Despite Komla’s statement, Mali’s Group B opponents will do well to look at how the team has fared since sealing qualification. During their three-week camp in Abu Dhabi last month, the team beat Ghana 2-1, USA 2-1 and UAE 4-0. Incredulously, they did it with their second-string squad.
Mali's tournament beings with a match Paraguay at Navi Mumbai's DY Patil Stadium on October.
In Komla's words, it's time to get serious.
Published Date: Oct 05, 2017 12:29 pm | Updated Date: Oct 05, 2017 12:29 pm