After tripping up Germany in the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 back in June and going on to finish third in that competition, Mali’s young footballers are on the march again. Taking the limelight this time are the nation’s U-17s, who have won through to the last four at Chile 2015, where they will face Belgium in La Serena on Thursday.
Asked if their achievement can be described as something of a surprise, Aiglonnets coach Baye Ba pointed out that a lot of planning had gone into it. “We’ve had a youth policy up and running in Mali for several years now,” he explained. “We took inspiration from what the Germans were doing and we had a German director of football, Joachim Fickert, who implemented the whole policy.
“The Germany team that won the World Cup in Brazil was the Mesut Ozil generation, which had spent several years together. That’s the model that inspired us: bringing a group of players together for a period of time until they start maturing.”
An experienced club coach on the domestic and international scenes before taking charge of Les Aiglonnets, Ba added: “Over the last couple of years we’ve been organising a lot of get-togethers and competitions with the U-17s, which have allowed us to pick the best and most effective players.
“Before, there was a tendency among young players to get a bit distracted, while the coaches had performance-related contracts and were sacked if results weren’t up to scratch. Now we’ve got long-term contracts in place, which gives us a bit more peace of mind.”
The stability he has enjoyed in the last two years has allowed Coach Ba to nurture his young charges, with the benefits being clear for all to see in Chile: “Our goal here is to develop young players and make them competitive. We have a lot of talented individuals in Mali, but it’s the mental side that’s lacking because there’s no monitoring at the start of the process.”
Explaining his philosophy, Ba said: “They’re young players and I want to see them have fun and play the ball. I also want them to build from the back and and continue to pass and move as they go forward. I put a lot of emphasis on that because there’s a tendency in Africa to play too many long balls and to forget about working the ball around. We have the talent to play the game a little better.”
Another factor that has made Mali such awkward opponents in Chile has been their unpredictability on the ball, an area their enterprising coach has also been working on. “That’s something I’ve brought in,” he explained. “My strategy is to make the absolute most of my players’ individual skills to make life hard for our opponents.”
Mali’s semi-final opponents Belgium at least know what to expect, having come up against them in the group phase, playing out a goalless draw despite being outplayed by the Africans. “It was the first match and we didn’t know each other,” said Ba. “Now they’ll be on their guard though.”
Hungry for further success and determined to implement the German method to achieve it, Ba added: “Let me tell you straight: you build up an appetite by eating. Right now, we’re looking to win the cup. You learn things from winning and it will also give people and the Malian authorities the desire to push on with this development policy and to one day try and win the World Cup.”