Conditions in Guwahati were far perfect for an evening of football, the first quarter-final of the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup no less. However, experience, a word that is a paradox given the nature of this youth tournament, became the undoing of Ghana as Mali waddled through difficult conditions to become the first side to register a spot in the final four of the competition.
Mali’s experience in two areas counted. First, the experience of playing in rain at Navi Mumbai, where two of Mali’s group B games against Paraguay and Turkey were played. However, it must be noted that those conditions were not as bad as ones in Guwahati on Saturday. In contrast, Ghana’s experiences so far have been in the driest host city of the country, New Delhi, with only a brief and dry stop-over in Navi Mumbai for the Round of 16. On Saturday, rain Gods welcomed them with completely foreign conditions for the first time in the tournament.
Secondly, the experience of familiarity with the opponent—a factor either side could have easily mastered—was embraced more by Mali and that showed in the performance as admitted by head coach Jonas Komla after the game, saying, “We knew Ghana played long balls, so accordingly we told our players to adapt.”
Adapt, Mali did pretty well while the Black Starlets were left without any answer as the ball stopped at times on the pitch and the players slipped due to the rain which poured down during the entire ninety minutes of action.
Unlike in previous games, where Mali took time to warm up and test out the waters in the opening few minutes, the urgency to score was pretty evident given conditions would only turn worse. In the sixth minute itself, joint top scorer of the tournament, Lassana N’diaye made his run too early and found himself way ahead of the ball. Hadji Drame’s shot too ruffled the side netting but N’diaye seemed absolutely livid realising he was in the best position to convert than any of his teammates.
Drame did make amends by scoring the opener less than ten minutes later, but it was the uneven pitch which played a part as a mispass was picked up by the talented Salam Jiddou. Releasing Drame, who gave it his all in the run, could not be stopped by Rashid Alhassan, who fell victim to the field as he took a tumble and the powerful shot found the back of the net, much to the relief of those on the Mali bench.
Eric Ayiah, usually effervescent in the opposition box, cut a sorry figure as lack of preparation for the conditions showed as Ghana managed only a single shot on target in the first half. In another unusual occurrence, creator-in-chief Sadiq Ibrahim was left on the bench despite being eligible to play from the start after serving out his one-match suspension. He was brought on in the 55th minute but by then it was too late as Mali had mentally drained Ghana with their tactics. Samuel Fabin would have been asked a lot of questions as Sadiq did earn a penalty with his pace proving too quick for Fode Konate. However, by then Mali had added another goal.
Ghana, who brought with them the youngest player of the tournament in the form of goalkeeper Danlad Ibrahim, were punished when Danlad miscued his kick and Djemoussa Traore, one of the shortest players on the pitch, curled in from range. Even though Danlad got his palms to the ball, the ball slid in, signalling the end of their campaign.
The last twenty minutes looked anything but a quarter-final of a FIFA tournament—the pitch looked at its ugliest ever since competitive football has been played on it. There were some moments of laughter at the expense of the players, who kept on tripping, especially the Malians, whose white kits bore a brown tinge.
While Ghana coach Paa Kwesi Fabin made it clear that these were the worst conditions to play football in and that the game should have been abandoned in the first place, his exultant counterpart dismissed them as excuses for coming up short. The 40-odd travelling Ghana supporters, clad in plastic ponchos and singing the tune of ‘Fubia’, would be utterly dejected to have to return home empty-handed.
Mali, who made their second semi-final in a row, will sit back and learn of their opponents on Sunday—one of Spain or Iran. However, skipper Mohamed Camara will be suspended but will take heart that they have found new heroes apart from N’Diaye, who had scored in every game up until the quarters clash in Guwahati.
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Updated Date: Oct 22, 2017 16:19:35 IST