Mali U-20s

The past
A golden generation of players, who still form the backbone of the Mali national side, had their genesis at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in one of the west African country’s three previous appearances in the finals. Mali were semi-finalists in 1999 when they eliminated hosts Nigeria in the last eight but then lost to eventual winners Spain in the semi-final. Seydou Keita was named winner of the tournament’s Golden Ball award for best player, and is still able to reminisce about losing out on a final place with Barcelona team-mate Xavi, who played against him for Spain. Mali also featured at the 1989 finals when they lost 5-0 to Brazil, and in 2003 when they also failed to get past the first round.

The present
Mali were the first side to book their place at Colombia 2011 from the African Youth Championship after the first two group games ensured them a semi-final place. But in three subsequent matches at the tournament in South Africa, they failed to force a victory and ended the event in fourth. Coached by Cheik Fantamady Diallo, who was a star when Mali reached the final of the 1972 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, the squad draws heavily from players who have already found clubs overseas or are from the diaspora. The side faded at the African finals which suggests work is needed on physical stamina and concentration, but Diallo insists his first job is to “make men of boys” ahead of any footballing concerns.

The future
A match-up with former colonisers France in the group phase has already spiced up interest ahead of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, particularly as players of Malian origin could feature for the opposition. Their trio of starlets from Paris St Germain - Kalifa Coulibaly, Adama Toure and Kalifa Traore - are being tipped for greatness. The good french youth academies of Auxerre, with Ibrahima Diallo, and Rennes, with Fanta Mady Diarra, will be well-represented too. The rest of the team should have the physical strength to compete at the world championships.