Though Manuel Neuer was not in goal for Germany for Sunday’s quarter-final tie with Mali at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015, and though the young Mannschaft could have used the Bayern Munich man’s massive presence in the shootout that decided the game, that is not to say he did not have an influence on proceedings.

That influence was revealed was revealed by a rather surprising source after the match, when FIFA.com caught up with Mali keeper Djigui Diarra, a man who had a big hand in the Africans’ hard-fought win over the Germans.   

“Manuel Neuer is my role model,” exclaimed the Aiglons No1. “He’s a fantastic keeper and a big inspiration to me. I really like him, though I like my team colours and my country more.”

The great Neuer would have been pleased to turn in the kind of performance Diarra produced in Christchurch. Though he failed to get a hand on a single spot-kick in the shootout – not that he had to, with Germany’s Julian Brandt and Niklas Stark missing the target altogether with their efforts – he did make an ultimately crucial stop from the penalty spot in normal time, the turning point of the tie.

Fifty-three minutes had elapsed when Mali’s Falaye Sacko tripped Jeremy Dudziak in the box. With the Germans already 1-0 up, skipper Hany Mukhtar had the chance to put the game all but out of the African side’s reach. Firing the ball high to Diarra’s left, however, Mukhtar was aghast to see the 'keeper guess right and push it away to safety.

“I saw him looking in that direction just before he took the penalty, and I just had to follow his eyes,” said the shotstopping hero. “I think it gave us the lift we needed. My team-mates said that save wouldn’t be in vain and they were true to their word.”

I feel like I’ve been given a mission and I want to live up to my responsibilities.

Djigui Diarra, Mali goalkeeper and stand-in captain.

Within four minutes, Souleymane Coulibaly got on the end of Youssouf Kone’s free-kick to restore parity, which is how things remained all the way to the shootout, though a hesitant Diarra was grateful to scoop a dangerous Brandt free-kick out of harm’s way in the second half of extra-time. And when the penalties came, the Mali custodian did rather less work than he might have expected.

“That’s right. I didn’t make any saves at all, though I’m sure they were scared to see me standing there in front of them. The next thing I knew, they’d shot wide.”

Man on a mission
Diarra is grateful to be in the limelight, especially after having only just reclaimed the No1 jersey. Injured in the lead-up to the CAF African U-20 Championships, he looked on as understudy Sory Traore excelled in making a vital contribution to Les Aiglons’ qualification for the world finals. When the time came for Mali to step out against Mexico for their opening match in New Zealand, there was much conjecture as to whether it would be Diarra or Traore who would be pulling the gloves.

Explaining his decision to go with Diarra, Mali coach Fanyeri Diarra said: “Sory did a great job in the African finals and I haven’t lost confidence in him. But Djigui was the first-choice keeper before he got injured and he did everything he had to in order to regain top form. It just seemed logical to me to make him the first choice here at the World Cup, and I think he’s more than proved my decision to be the right one.”

As well as regaining his place in the side, the keeper was also made captain after Ichaka Diarra picked up an injury during the group phase.

“It’s an honour to be pulling on the armband,” said its proud new wearer. “It’s a sign of the confidence that my colleagues and the coaching staff have in me. I feel like I’ve been given a mission and I want to live up to my responsibilities.”

Captain Diarra’s U-20 World Cup assignment will continue with a semi-final against Serbia on Wednesday. Pausing to reflect on the win that took them there, he said: “We’d like to dedicate this victory to our people, though the job is not over yet.”

His work could well end in one week’s time with him emulating his goalkeeping hero Neuer in the best possible fashion, by becoming a champion of the world.