West African neighbours Senegal and Mali have much in common. As well as sharing the same national motto ('One People, One Goal, One Faith'), their tricolour flags share the same green, yellow and red bands, while both countries declared independence on the very same day: 21 May 1960.
The two nations’ adventures at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 have also mirrored each other. Playing similar brands of easy-on-the-eye football, they each defied all expectations to reach the last four of the competition, and will face off in Auckland on Saturday with the selfsame objective: to take third place on the podium.
Contemplating the play-off for third place, Senegal coach Joseph Koto said: “We went into this competition with one goal in mind: to reach the final. God has decided it was not to be. We are left with one final match to play, one that is very important in our eyes, and we will be doing our utmost to beat our brothers.”
Sounding a similar note was his opposite number Fanyeri Diarra: “We have put in a fantastic performance and the adventure is not over yet. There is still a bronze medal to play for and I think it’s wonderful that two African countries are contesting it.”
Saturday’s match will not be the first occasion that these two former international defenders have come face to face on a football pitch. They were frequent opponents in the 1980s, when Les Aigles and the Lions of Teranga contested bragging rights in West Africa, and since moving into coaching they have pitted their wits against each other on several occasions, most recently in the semi-finals of the CAF U-20 African Championships in March, where Koto’s Senegal emerged victorious.
As FIFA.com discovered, the long-running sporting rivalry between the two men is underpinned by a firm friendship.
“We’ve known each other for a very long time and our friendship extends beyond the field of play,” explained Diarra, while Koto added: “Our paths have been crossing for many years now. We’ve become friends and I can only congratulate Fanyeri on his work with Mali. He’s done an exemplary job, as he’s shown by reaching the semis at this World Cup.
“But it’s not about us anymore. It’s about the players. We’ve had our time, and all we can do today is give our sons all the support they need on their way to the top.”
The two coaches have fulfilled that brief in New Zealand, where Senegal’s Sidy Sarr, Ibrahima Sy and Moussa Kone and Mali’s Adama Traore, Dieudonne Gbkale and Djigui Diarra have announced themselves to the world, along with their team-mates.
In the past, African teams never got their preparations right for competitions like this. They had an inferiority complex. But that’s not the case anymore.
On the collective front, the two sides have more than held their own against the competition’s most feared sides, with the Senegalese knocking out a Ukraine side boasting the tournament’s top scorer in Viktor Kovalenko, while Mali saw off Germany, the most prolific attacking side at New Zealand 2015.
“It’s very important for us Africans to be able to compete against sides like that,” said Koto. “They’re more organised, they have different types of attributes and more resources too. Even so, we’ve been able to rise to the challenge.
“Having two teams from the mother continent reach this stage of the competition shows that we’re on the right track in African football. It all shows that we’re doing our job right,” he added. “In the past, African teams never got their preparations right for competitions like this. They had an inferiority complex. But that’s not the case anymore. Africa has found its place now on the global stage.”
After Ghana and Egypt in 2001, and Nigeria and Morocco in 2005, this is only the third occasion on which two African sides have made the semi-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Though Serbia and Brazil ultimately blocked the respective paths of Mali and Senegal to the final, the two CAF representatives are delighted to be squaring off in the penultimate match of the competition, and not without good reason, as Diarra explained: “There is much more than a history of friendship between Mali and Senegal: we are brothers.”
Giving his views on Saturday’s meeting of friends, Koto added: “We’ve been Mali’s biggest supporters in this competition and we were dreaming of seeing both teams in the final.
“As it’s turned out, we’ll be playing off for third place, though we’ll still have the same will to win. The two countries might be brothers and we might have a healthy rivalry, but there can only be one winner on the field of play.”