After opening up with promising draws against Paraguay and Greece, Mali’s involvement in the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013 came to an abrupt end when they were beaten 4-1 by Mexico on Friday, a result that dashed their dreams of emulating the third place achieved by Seydou Keita and Co at Nigeria 1999.

Putting a brave face on their elimination was the team’s coach Moussa Keita, one of the revelations of the tournament, a status partly attributable to the ball skills he showed when Mali took on the Paraguayans. It was during that game that he sprang into action to head the ball back on to the pitch after it had gone out of play, a nifty piece of technique that earned him the biggest round of applause of the day at the Kamil Ocak Stadium in Gaziantep.

Like his team, Keita has earned the affection of the fans over the last few days, and despite the disappointment of defeat to the Mexicans, he was only too pleased to speak to afterwards.

“We tried to give the very best of ourselves against Mexico, and after we pulled it back to 2-1 we went all out for the equaliser. It wasn’t to be though,” he lamented, gesticulating with his hands, as if he were still sending out instructions from the touchline. “Maybe we lacked concentration, but that’s football.”

I honestly think we had an excellent tournament. Even though we’ve been knocked out, I’m very proud of my players.

Mali coach Moussa Keita

At nearly two metres tall and with his penetrating gaze, Keita has an imposing air about him, but the fact is he could hardly be more approachable. He is also an elegant dresser, catching the eye by donning a smart pearl grey suit for Friday’s game, having opted for a check shirt and casual trousers for Mali’s opening match.  “Overall, I feel we’ve had a very good tournament,” he said with a sense of conviction in his voice, even if he, like his players, was feeling the effects of a tiring afternoon.

Despite having all but lost his voice after barking instructions at his players for 90 minutes, he was still able to get his message across: “I’m very happy that we’ve had the opportunity to be here, and I honestly think we had an excellent tournament. Even though we’ve been knocked out, I’m very proud of my players.”  

His charges certainly gave their all, and though they finished bottom of Group D, they at least improved on the nation’s performance at the previous FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia two years ago, when the West Africans failed to win a single point.  Certain in the belief that no one can question their efforts, he said: “We can go back home with our heads held high.”

Something of a father figure for the Mali players over these last few months, Keita has taken great satisfaction from their efforts and is hopeful their experience at Turkey 2013 will stand them in good stead for the future.

“I think the doors to professional football were already open to the boys before they came here, but I really hope that the tournament will help them to have a better future,” he commented. “And I hope they end up playing in Europe. If they can do that, it will show that we have a great team.”

Keita smiled as he signed off, taking with him the boundless enthusiasm - and heading prowess - that have contributed so much to the competition.