Composure and speed making Malian history
As all of the sides that have crossed their path over the course of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015 can attest to, Mali are fast. Very fast. After Belgium became the latest country to succumb to the Malian whirlwind, in the semi-finals on Thursday 5 November, FIFA.com felt for ourselves what it must be like for opposition players on realising that the Eaglets had all left the La Serena stadium like a flash after the post-game press conference.
And so we raced to the team hotel, where we were finally able to catch up with Sidiki Maiga and Sekou Koita, the scorers of the two second-half goals that handed Mali victory. Maiga put his side ahead for the first time ten minutes after the break, taking full advantage of Belgian goalkeeper Jens Teunckens' miscalculation.
"I saw Moussa Diakite launch a clearance and immediately sensed that I could score," he said. "I think that there was a misunderstanding between the keeper and the defender. I don't score too many goals like that; strikes from outside the area are usually more my style."
As for Koita, who ended Belgium's hopes with five minutes remaining, his was much more of a signature effort: "That sort of goal, letting fly from one side, is a bit of a speciality of mine. I enjoy cutting inside from the right or left and hitting the net. I shifted over to the flank to use my speed and the Belgian defender couldn't get tight enough."
The pair's cool, calm and collected thoughts offer a stark contrast to the two teams' earlier meeting in the tournament, the 0-0 stalemate in the Group D opener, in which Mali frenziedly laid siege to the Belgian goal to no avail. "It was the beginning of the competition and we had no experience of what a World Cup is like. The pressure got to us a bit, but now things are going better on that score. We mixed up speed and haste," said Maiga.
"I think we were too eager, that's why we missed all those chances," Koita chipped in. "We watched the video of the first match and learned a lot from the mistakes we'd made. After that, we did a lot of work in front of goal. That's what our victory today was down to," Maiga added.
Bouncing back Spirit and resilience were another factor, as the Malians summoned a rapid reaction to going behind, a situation that they are not used to. "In two years of playing at international level this is the first time I've seen my team concede the first goal. I was a bit concerned, but we handled it very well," Maiga went on with a smile, alluding to Boubacar Traore's swift equaliser.
Baye Ba's words at half-time appear to have been equally influential, because his charges returned to the pitch revitalised. As the duo put it, "The coach really talked things through with us. He made some tactical tweaks and above all told us to calm down and to see things more clearly."
This interview was conducted with the second semi-final in full swing, so Mali were still unaware that they would have to take on holders Nigeria for the crown. Yet Maiga and Koita's eyes hardly strayed to the action on the television just a few metres away.
This was no accident: "We didn't play against them in qualifying , but I think they've got a good team. We'll see what happens. We deliberately haven't paid too much attention to them; we try to get an idea of our opposition right before every game and that's that," Maiga explained.
As they say, 'if it isn't broken, don't fix it.' After all, it is this relaxed, spontaneous approach that has led Koita, Maiga and Co to blaze a trail by reaching the country's first-ever final on the world stage, making themselves heroes back home in the process. For the neutrals, meanwhile, Mali's speedsters make up one half of what promises to be an enthralling, fast-and-furious all-African title decider.