Luck, whether good or bad, is an integral part of football and comes in many shapes and sizes, from the drawing of lots and the hitting of woodwork to injuries and penalty shoot-outs.
One team that knows a thing or two about the game’s cruel misfortunes are Mali, who fell victim to a string of setbacks in early 2015. Their luckless run began when their promising U-17 side was eliminated in the first round of qualifying for that year’s CAF Africa U-17 Cup of Nations, and continued when the country’s senior team tied with Guinea in the group phase of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations and went out of the competition after lots were drawn.
Then it was the turn of the U-20s to feel the fickle hand of fortune upon it, as their first-choice goalkeeper Djigui Diarra fractured a hand just hours before their opening game at the CAF Africa U-20 Cup of Nations, an injury that ruled him out of the tournament.
Thankfully for Les Aigles (The Eagles), the winds of fate then began to blow in their favour. Following an administrative error on the part of Benin, who fielded four ineligible players in that first round of qualifying for the continental U-17 finals, Mali were readmitted to the tournament and went on to win it before finishing runners-up at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015.
For their part, the full national team then hit form at the 2016 African Nations Championship (CHAN 2016), advancing to the final, and also saw off Botswana to reach the third round of the qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, while the U-20s checked into the 2015 world finals in their age group in New Zealand, eventually taking an impressive third place.
Having recovered in time from his broken hand to make the trip to New Zealand, Diarra is a symbol of the revival in Malian fortunes, a subject he discussed in an interview with FIFA.com.
“Our luck has turned, that’s for sure,” said the young custodian. “There’s a lot of hard work that went into those results though. I had the misfortune of getting injured before the African finals but I don’t think there was anything lucky about the fact that I made it to the U-20 World Cup. I trained and trained the whole time. I put the work in and kept believing I could make the tournament. And thanks to God, I did make it.”
Mali were fortunate to have Diarra along for the ride. In inspirational form throughout the tournament, he stood especially tall in the quarter-final against Germany, keeping out a penalty with Mali trailing 1-0, a turning point in a match Les Aiglons eventually took to a penalty shoot-out, which they won 4-3 to advance to the semis.
“That’s my happiest memory,” recalled the keeper, who plays for Malian league leaders Stade Malien, who are also gunning for glory in the CAF Champions League. “I think my penalty save got us back into that match. It gave my team-mates new heart and it was my duty as the captain of the side.”
Mali’s guardian angel has his own unique take on the job of goalkeeping, as he explained: “Apart from the physical side of things, like reflexes, foot positioning and jumping, I like the psychological aspect of what I do. I like to feel the weight and the hopes of the team on my shoulders. It’s a special feeling when you have the power to save your team in a penalty shoot-out and to have an entire nation banking on you.”
A full international since July last year, Diarra was a star of Mali’s run to the CHAN 2016 final in Rwanda. Casting his mind back to that tournament, he said: “I have some real regrets about it. Not many people gave us a chance beforehand, but we managed to go all the way to the final. The thing is, when you get to the final of a competition like that, you have to go and win it. Unfortunately, the footballing gods were not on our side that night against Congo DR, though I’m convinced we’ll have the chance to make amends.”
The African qualifiers for Russia 2018 have come along at just the right time for Diarra and Les Aigles as they bid to make history. While Mali have had several top-class players in their ranks over the years, among them Seydou Keita, Frederic Kanoute, Momo Sissoko and Mahamadou Diarra, they have yet to grace the world finals proper.
Eyeing a chance to set that record straight, the 21-year-old Diarra said: “We’ve got pretty much everything we need now to fulfil that dream. I can tell you that this new generation is working tirelessly to achieve that goal. Our predecessors tried their hardest and it’s up to us now to pick up the baton, come together and reach that objective.”
As Diarra would agree, a little bit of luck along the way would not go amiss.