Such is the growing strength of Malian football that the national team have managed to recover from an emotional start to 2012 and reach their highest-ever ranking in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings. After climbing seven spots in the September table, the Eagles are now 32nd overall and fourth on the continent.
Eighteen months ago, the west Africans were 85th in the rankings, but a podium finish at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea saw celebrations in Bamako and on the pitch in Malabo, where the side defeated Ghana 2-0 in the third-place match. French coach Alain Giresse even performed a dance at the final whistle and was hoisted onto the players’ shoulders after the side’s best African finish since 1972.
However, happiness was followed by uncertainty because, while Mali was getting ready to begin qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Giresse had a falling out with the FA over the renewal of his contract and quit the post. The confusion was exacerbated by political instability in the north of the country that spread to the capital city. Into the breach stepped assistant manager Amadou Pathe Diallo, who led the side to a split of their first two Brazil 2014 preliminaries.
Within a week at the start of June, they lost 1-0 away to improving Benin and then recovered to defeat South Africa 2010 finalists Algeria 2-1 after going a goal behind. The U-20 coach has since been replaced by Frenchman Patrice Carteron, but he made the point that Malian football is on the way up, regardless of the manager. “Mali’s style and manner of play already exists, and the team has its own momentum,” said Pathe Diallo after the Algeria contest. "After our third place at the CAN, we just need to stay the course."
We have seen again that Mali are a good team, while before maybe we had good players.
This past weekend was Carteron’s first match in charge, and they did a bit more than stay the course, running out to an impressive 3-0 win over Botswana. Due to the competition’s shortened preliminaries, the match was their debut and they only need to survive a second leg away in a month’s time to qualify for the South African finals in January. A relative newcomer to coaching with no experience in Africa, the 42-year-old is nonetheless known to be attack-minded despite a long playing career as a defender, and his impact seemed to be immediate.
Despite qualifying his selection by saying that he had not seen or talked to all of his potential players, the former Dijon coach boosted his team’s confidence noticeably. That was even more impressive considering he called up just one domestic player, meaning the side had little time to come together before the match. Not that you would have guessed this from the way his team weaved moves together and committed large numbers to attack against a determined Botswana defence. Indeed, they might have claimed a considerably more resounding win over the Zebras, who made their debut at the AFCON earlier this year.
The first goal was scored by the powerful Cheick Diabate, who both won and converted a penalty before the half-hour mark. Mahamadou N'Diaye, who plays his club football in Portugal, scored the second from a corner kick after a header came back off the post near the hour, and Modibo Maiga, newly installed at West Ham United, headed in the third ten minutes later. It was a mark of their mood that they created another handful of chances after going ahead 3-0 and barely allowed the Zebras a sniff of goal from within 20 yards.
The team included old faces like Seydou Keita, who has moved to China after leaving Barcelona, and midfielder Mahamadou Diarra, back in the fold after finding a home at Fulham, but captain Cedric Kante was not in the defence after deciding to concentrate on settling at new club Sochaux. The crowd was overjoyed at the performance that lived up to the mantle of the Frederic Kanoute-led Malian teams of the 2000s, teams that were noted for their athletic attacking play. In contrast, Mali struggled against Botswana at the 2012 Cup of Nations, just eking out a 2-1 win after going behind with a place in the knockout round on the line.
Reflecting on the improvement since then, Keita - who was stand-in captain at the weekend - said that he had witnessed plenty of encouraging signs. “We have seen again that Mali are a good team, while before maybe we had good players," said the 32-year-old. "After settling, we mastered the middle of the game. We had some new players and some players coming back, but the side was not disturbed as these players humbled themselves and got caught up by the team’s spirit."