In the pantheon of Mali’s great footballers, Cheik Fantamady Diallo stands high alongside the likes of Salif Keita and the later generation of Mahamadou Diarra, Seydou Keita and Frederic Kanoute. He is best remembered as one of the star performers of the Mali team that reached the final of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1972, an achievement that the arid west African nation have never since been able to match, let alone better.
At the tournament Mali lost dramatically in the final in Yaounde to Congo by the odd goal in five. The man from Mopti then went on to play in France at Cannes, Troyes, Metz and Laval before returning home to embark on his coaching career.
Now, almost four decades later, the 60-year-old Diallo returns to the spotlight as coach of Mali as they prepare to play in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia, where they will meet Korea Republic in their opening Group A game in Bogota on Saturday.
It is a tournament where Mali have previously been semi-finalists, but for Diallo, achieving success is only as important as the growth and development of his players. He says he is looking to not only empower his players on the pitch, but off it too.
“I want them to emerge from the tournament firstly as good men and good players. I want them to come out with strong characters,” he said recently. “I have put the necessary confidence into them, and I know they can respond. It is only after that, that we are then concerned about the results. We have a side that is motivated and that has a good spirit in the squad.”
Diallo has spent more than a decade working with Mali’s top juniors and wants them to develop not only as footballers but as men too. It is a philosophy that has held him in good stead. He was at the helm when the Mali U-17 side got to the quarter-finals at the 2001 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago before being eliminated by an extra-time goal from Argentina.
In 2003 he was the coach that qualified the Mali side for the 2003 FIFA U-20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates but was sacked before the tournament because he was doubling up as the Olympic team coach and had not had the same success at U-23 level. “We are one of the countries that is regularly competing in these competitions,” says Diallo, “but I think this latest generation is one of the best we’ve had.”
Now he enjoys the nickname ‘Del Bosque’ in his homeland as a mark of respect and affection and, of course, a flattering comparison with the venerable reputation owned by the FIFA World Cup™-winning coach from Spain.
Standing on the winner’s podium a la Del Bosque and his charges must be Diallo’s ultimate dream, but on leaving home for Colombia, he has set his sights a little lower. “I hope we will go as far as possible and to start we must aim to get past the first round,” he said.
“The majority of my players have grown together in the last year and they have proven themselves already at the African championships. These boys have proven themselves beyond physical considerations, tactics and techniques. They are able to look anyone in the eye.”