Mali’s young stars fire up their engines

A strong start can often be decisive, particularly in motorsport, where the driver who presses the accelerator down at just the right moment can end up leading the pack into the first corner. This philosophy seems to have been adopted by Mali’s representatives at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2015, as these African youngsters have made several lightning-fast starts in succession during their time in Chile.

Although the Malian goalscoring engine was still stuttering into life in their opening goalless draw against Belgium, they have not looked back since. With a 2-1 victory over Ecuador and 3-0 wins against Honduras and Korea DPR, it has proved almost impossible to stop the attacking fireworks that have propelled Les Aiglonnets into the lead within the first ten minutes of each match. “There’s no doubt that our strategy is always to score a quick goal – the sooner the better,” coach Baye Ba explained to FIFA.com. “We always want to play on the front foot from the start; it’s better than scoring too late.”

Regardless of whether the match in question is a group game or a knockout encounter, Mali doggedly pursue an attacking strategy, registering an unsurpassed 70 attempts on goal during the group stage before adding a further 22 shots in their Round of 16 tie with Korea DPR. Having already found the target in the seventh minute against Honduras, Amadou Haidara once again set his team on the path to victory at the earliest opportunity against their Asian rivals by netting in the eighth minute. “We have no fear and always push towards our opponents’ goal. Even if we miss plenty of chances, the goals will come at some point,” the midfielder said when FIFA.com caught up with him for an interview on the team bus not far from Talca’s Estadio Fiscal, before giving his neighbour a gentle pat on the shoulder.

There’s no doubt that our strategy is always to score a quick goal – the sooner the better.

The colleague in question is Sidiki Maiga, who also added his name to the scoresheet twice in the last-16 encounter. “We’re friends off the pitch as well,” explained the striker. “That way we feel and know where the other one is and where we need to place our passes. We’ve already played alongside each other for more than two years, and stay in contact even when we go home,” he said, before admitting: “We weren’t sure what to expect in our first game against Belgium, but we kept believing in ourselves. It’s up for others to decide whether we’re now favourites, but we certainly want to lift the trophy here.”

Together with Boubacar Traore, Sekou Koita and Aly Malle, the pair form an impressive, not to mention varying, forward unit. Maiga models himself on Belgium and Chelsea star Eden Hazard, saying: “His dribbling and pace are fantastic.” In contrast, Amadou’s role model is world-class Italian playmaker Andrea Pirlo, “because he always has a vision for the game and can create a moment of brilliance at any time”.

Having already tasted continental glory at this year’s African U-17 Championship, Mali are now seeking success on the global stage. Awaiting them in the quarter-finals are Croatia, who sent joint favourites Germany packing with a 2-0 win in the Round of 16. The encounter will mark Les Aiglonnets’ third last-eight appearance in this competition, having only missed out on a semi-final place in 1997 after losing a penalty shootout to the Germans. The player who missed the final spot-kick that day was Seydou Keita, who went on to forge a successful international career and play for clubs such as Olympique Marseille, Barcelona and Roma. The Malians once again narrowly missed their chance to make the last four in 2001 after losing 2-1 to Argentina in extra time.

Triumph in South America would certainly crown a remarkable year for Mali’s young footballers. Just a few months ago the African side collected a bronze medal at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2015, with Adama Traore awarded the adidas Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament. Coach Ba declared during the group stages that he would like his team to emulate the New Zealand result at the very least. “There has been plenty of investment in youth in our homeland,” confirmed Maiga, who dreams of a career in Europe. “We hope this is just the beginning and that we can stand on the top step of the podium one day.”