With five-time winners Nigeria missing out on qualifying for the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup that India will host in a few months, Mali appears to be one of the teams to beat in the prestigious youth tournament.
It would surprise a little to know that Mali have never made it to the FIFA World Cup at the senior level despite boasting a side with some prominent players like ex-Real Madrid midfielder Mahamadou Diarra, former Sevilla, Barcelona, and Roma player Seydou Keita, and striker Frederic Kanoute, who represented Tottenham Hotspur and Sevilla. Nevertheless, their junior side, instead, has ruffled a few feathers with a string of exceptional performances in recent times.
In the previous edition of the U-17 World Cup in Chile, the Les Aigles (The Eagles) qualified for the world event as African Cup of Nations (AFCON) champions in the U-17 category ahead of Nigeria in 2015. Similarly, Mali sealed their ticket to India by becoming the champions of the U-17 AFCON Cup for the second successive time earlier this year.
The Les Aigles contested in three successive U-17 World Cup events between 1997 and 2001, however, a barren run between 2003 to 2013 signaled the downturn of the team. In the 1997 edition, the Malians were knocked out on penalties by Germany at the quarter-final stage. Interestingly, it was Keita who missed the decisive spot-kick.
Mali had a forgettable season two years later, in New Zealand, as they failed to advance from the group stage, while in 2001, the Africans came close to breaking into the semi-finals of the competition, but lost out to Argentina 2-1 in extra time.
After a lengthy ten-year gap, Mali made it all the way to the final by beating the likes of Croatia and Belgium to get to the summit clash in 2015 but failed to deliver the goods when needed suffering a 2-0 defeat at the hands of direct rivals Nigeria.
Meanwhile, at the 2017 CAF U-17 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon, Mali became the only team in the history of the tournament to retain their crown after winning their maiden title in 2015. Mali emerged victorious in Gabon earlier this year, having eased past teams in the qualifying rounds, which featured a 9-0 thrashing of Chad. The Malians also thrashed Angola 6-1 after drawing 0-0 with Tanzania and beating Niger 2-1 in the first two games. In the semi-finals, following a scoreless stalemate, they got the better of Guinea via a penalty shoot-out, and in the final, a Mamadou Samake goal was enough to secure a win over Ghana which brought home a second continental title.
With one of the toughest jobs under his belt, Mali coach Jonas Komla will be tested on the biggest platform of all having formerly taken charge of Djoliba, one of Mali’s major clubs, and Emirati side Bani Yas. The Togolese tactician, who is also highly regarded due to his vast experience in successfully managing youth teams, took the reins of the West African side after the departure of Baye Bah, who had led them to the final of Chile 2015. Like Bah, Komla too has guided his charges to continental glory in Gabon and he hopes to do so by reaching the final in India.
Come October, the high-flying Mali will lock horns with Paraguay, New Zealand, and Turkey in Group B, with their matches to be played at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai.
"All the teams in the group are very good, and we are happy to be facing them. It (tournament) is something that's unforgettable for the players and I’m very positive about the venues we'll play in too. I’m looking at it match by match. The first objective is to get out of the group, and after that, we will see how we progress," Mali coach Jonas Komla told Firstpost after the draws were out in Mumbai on 7 July.
"Compared to other African countries, Mali are a step ahead when it comes to mental preparation. We've been working with these players since they started at U-13 level, and we've put a lot of emphasis on the mental aspect. You mustn't forget that they come from very poor families and that football is a way out for them. We teach them to play every game with the same rigour and focus," Komla was quoted as saying by FIFA.com on Wednesday.
Komla, who reportedly had a good grounding at Manchester City, Valencia and Real Madrid, will now put all that experience to good use for Malian football, with an aim of developing young players ahead of the U-17 World Cup.
Thus, the tournament in India will present a good opportunity for the 2015 runners-up to bounce back after coming close to winning the elusive trophy just two years ago and with a coach who is on a mission – to bring Mali back in the reckoning – the expectations will be high.
Updated Date: Sep 28, 2017 16:54 PM