MUMBAI: Though not governed by one of the richer football federations in the world, Mali comes to the U-17 World Cup with a reputation.
They won the Africa Cup of Nations in the age category this year. The West African nation was also the runners-up to Nigeria in the 2015 U-17 World Cup. With Nigeria out of this edition due to age fudging, Mali remains one of the most exciting prospects. During a three-week preparatory camp in Abu Dhabi, they played the national teams of USA, UAE and Ghana, and beat them all.
“We are not telling ourselves we are the favourites,” says Jonas Komla, the Mali coach who has moulded the physically strong players into a force to reckon with. “All the 24 teams are here on merit. At the U-17 level, there is very little in terms of skill that separates them. We are just trying to reach our maximum potential.”
While the former French colony have always had a passion for the beautiful game, they now have investment from the private sector and greater government involvement. Seydou Keita, who played for Barcelona, remains the country’s biggest export to the European leagues. But despite sporadic success, Mali have been unable to qualify for the senior World Cup.
“There is no problem for the kids playing from U-17 to U-20,” says Komla.
“For us, it is easy to gather them in Bamako (the capital) and monitor them physically and psychologically. But after that, they go their separate ways, some to leagues in Europe. So it’s difficult to get them together and train them consistently. We need more continuity to make sure we start doing well in the seniors as well.”
The U-17 World Cup, where they play their opening match on October 6, will be the first time they get to showcase their raw talent. And most of them will be looking to dazzle while wearing brand new shoes.
“When these boys go out of the country, the things they most look out for are the latest edition of shoes worn by (Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi,” smiles Yacouba. “More than half the squad bought them in Abu Dhabi before coming here.”