The last time Mali football fans took an active interest in the FIFA U-17 World Cup was in 2001, when Les Aiglonnets participated at the finals in Trinidad and Tobago. They did well, playing flashy football and coming agonisingly close to a place in the top four. They were just denied by Argentina, who won 2-1 after extra-time.
Arguably the best U-17 side Mali ever had was the class of 1997, when Seydou Keita, Mahamadou Diarra and Adama Coulibaly led the team into the quarter-finals of the World Cup, only to lose on penalties against Germany with Keita missing the decisive spot-kick. All three went on to enjoy exemplary careers in Europe, with Keita and Diarra playing in Spain (for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively) and in France.
Whether or not any of the class of 2015, who became only the fourth team of Mali players to reach the showpiece event of U-17 football, can reach the same heights remains to be seen. There are, however, two players who are being singled out for having the talent that can take them far. Although they are still teenagers, Aly Malle (17) and Sidiki Maiga (16) already play first division football, and the duo are looking to grab their share of headlines later this year when the eyes of the world's football fans turn toward the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile where the Malians will face Belgium, Ecuador and Honduras in Group D.
Both have already achieved what the likes of Keita, Diarra and Coulibaly have not; they won a continental title. Mali secured their first-ever African U-17 crown in March this year when they beat South Africa 2-0 in the final of the CAF African U-17 Championship in the Niger capital of Niamey. Malle started playing football on the streets of Kabala, a suburb of Mali's capital, Bamako. When he turned 12 he joined the Ligue 1 club Association Sportive de Bamako and has not looked back since.
“Winning the African Championships earlier this year was a very emotional thing full of great satisfaction”, the striker, who scored one of the goals in the final against South Africa, told FIFA.com. “The best thing was knowing of the immense joy that my team-mates and I brought to Malians.”
He says he is keen to emulate Cameroonian star Samuel Eto'o, who like him plays upfront. “Playing at the World Cup finals in Chile will give me a chance to showcase my talent,” said Malle, who has spent a short time with German Bundesliga club Cologne, whose coach Peter Stoeger sang his praises.
“He made a really good impression," Stoeger said. "Technically he is very good, fast and strong in one-on-one situations. However, it will take some time before he is ready to play at the highest level.”
His dream of signing for a club in Europe did not materialise this time around though, as regulations would not allow him to play in Cologne's second team, but he needs match experience to play for the first. “I am sad that it did not work out now, but we will keep on following his progress,” Stoeger said.
It is not only the Keitas, Diarras and Coulibalys that the two youngsters are trying to emulate. They have some pretty big footsteps to follow in their own families. Malles' brother Amara has already played on the global stage, having represented his country at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia in 2011. The midfielder currently plays for Djoliba AC Bamako.
The youngest of the three brothers is also a talented footballer and trains with the Right to Dream football academy in Ghana. Maiga, meanwhile, is the worthy heir of his father Babar Maiga, a former player of the Mopti-based Bani club. He is now hoping to add to his fathers' good name.
"Our ambition is to make this World Cup a showcase for Malian football," Maiga said. "But not only that, we want to go as far as possible. It is our dream to follow Nigeria, who are the current holders.”
On a personal level, he is keen to play in Europe. Currently contracted to AS Real Bamako, which is the club that Seydou Keita first played for, Maiga admits that it is not the former Barcelona player, who won the Golden Ball award at the 1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup, who is his hero.
"My idol is Didier Drogba, and I hope to follow in his footsteps. This will require many sacrifices and I'm willing to make them.”