Eaglets counting on spirit to soar
© AFP

Mussa Keita has plenty of experience dealing with the pressure that comes from appearing on a big stage. As a central defender, he was a member of the Mali squad that finished fourth at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1994, and he has now been tasked with leading his country's youngsters at the FIFA U-20 World Cup after their disappointing campaign in Colombia two years ago. 

At the CAF U-20 Championship in Algeria earlier this year, Keita guided the team into the semi-finals, where they lost a thrilling match on penalties to Ghana. However, Mali, who finished fourth after losing the play-off to Nigeria, had done enough to secure their ticket to Turkey. The team are excited to have the chance to make an impact at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, according to Keita.

“We have to be ambitious," he said. "Our first aim in Turkey is to make it to the second round. And then, you know how it works: the more you have, the more you want. We have to keep as focused and motivated as we are now."

The coach believes preparations for the tournament are going well, with Mali arriving in Turkey well before the competition started to allow the players to become accustomed to local conditions. During their time in Antalya they have received a very warm welcome from the locals, Keita explained: "People in the town have asked us a lot of questions, about our country and the World Cup. It is good to feel this support.” 

Closer look at Group D
The Eaglets will be facing Paraguay, Mexico and Greece in Group D, and Keita said he knows what to expect from their opponents. “I saw Paraguay play a friendly against Uruguay. So I have my ideas on how this team plays. They are good on the wings, so we will have to be cautious. We ourselves played a friendly against El Salvador and we drew (2-2). I am going to watch the first game between Mexico and Greece, which will help me prepare for the following games against those two teams.”

Keita is confident that his side will be up to the task in Turkey. "I have a very strong group, comprising 16 locally-based players, and five foreign-based players, including one who plays in Congo DR and one who plays in Albania. My players show solidarity, great technical skills and commitment. There is no star in this team, the whole team is the star. Most of them have known each other since they were 12 or 13, so it is a real team, in the best sense of the word.” 

He said that he is certain that his players will not struggle for motivation. “Playing for your country at the World Cup is the best motivation, all the more as we are the only French speaking country. All the French speaking countries in Africa will support us.”

The coach said that the team also wanted to bring Mali some respite from an ongoing conflict that has engulfed the country for a long time. “There were serious troubles in the northern part of Mali. But now everything is starting to go back to normal. Fear is starting to decrease. We want to help the country smile again, by pleasing every person in Mali.”

'We can win it'
Keita's players agree with the coach's view that their main strength in Turkey will be team spirit. "We have all been playing together for years, since childhood for some of us," said AS Bakaridjan defender Mahamadou Traore. "We were unlucky during the U-20 African Championship when we were defeated by Ghana in the semis, so I am confident about our chances in Turkey.” 

Mali's best performance at the tournament came in 1999, when the side finished third and Seydou Keita was awarded the Golden Ball as the best player of the competition. His nephew, Abdoulaye Keita, who plays in midfield for French club SC Bastia is in the squad for Turkey. “I have been playing in France for two years, and I have already learnt a lot. I hope I can bring this experience to the team."

He believes Mali can put in a strong showing in Turkey. "Do I think Mali can win the World Cup? The answer is yes. We believe in ourselves.”