- Mali won the CAF Africa U-17 Cup of Nations Gabon 2017
- Les Aiglonnets have been drawn in the same group as Paraguay, New Zealand and Turkey
- Chile 2015 runners-up are eager for another successful tournament
Of all the ingredients that spell success at U-17 level, few swing the pendulum like coaching expertise – and few U-17 coaches boast the stature of Mali's Jonas Komla. A youth-team specialist and one of Africa's most respected management figures, his record speaks for itself, with Les Aiglonnets (the Eaglets) booking their place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 by winning the last edition of the CAF Africa U-17 Cup of Nations.
That triumph added further sheen to Komla's reputation, and FIFA.com spoke with the Mali coach about his side's next major challenge – though not before a brief recap of his career so far. "I've worked with several youth teams," he explained. "I had the chance to work in the United Arab Emirates for three years and I got my grounding at some of Europe's biggest clubs, like Manchester City, Valencia and Real Madrid. I'm now putting all that experience to good use for Malian football, with the goal of helping the young players progress and do well at the U-17 World Cup."
Group stage goal
The draw for the final tournament has placed Mali in a fairly even group with Paraguay, Turkey and New Zealand, but Komla believes his side has every chance of qualifying for the knockout phase. "The Paraguayans love football," he said. "They have a good team and lots of talent, especially at youth level. I got the chance to take on Mexico in Japan and the two teams are quite similar, with a focus on technique and rapid movement."
Komla is likewise wary of an improved Turkey team. "The Turks have been concentrating on youth development. They're putting their focus on technique and power, so I'm expecting a physical game against them, especially considering the size of their players. In terms of tactics, we'll have to be up to the task on the day."
As for fellow group hopefuls New Zealand, the Mali coach believes the Oceanian contenders are the weakest side in the section – despite gearing up for their sixth U-17 World Cup in succession and eighth overall. "New Zealand will be putting their faith in a new generation of players," he said. "They always qualify for the U-17 World Cup and we'll take them very seriously. You have to treat every game like a final. We'll take every match as it comes, without getting ahead of ourselves. Our opponents will fear us because we're the African champions, and it'll be up to us to live up to our standing."
Mali will also begin the tournament as runners-up from two years ago in Chile, and as such they will be among the favourites to lift the trophy. Despite that pedigree, Komla is keeping his feet on the ground. "You hope to go as far as possible in every competition. Our first goal is to get beyond the group stage, and for that to happen we'll need to be completely focused on our first three matches. Once that's achieved, we'll approach the knockout games one by one."
Mali will certainly begin their bid in top form, in contrast to several sides who have endured difficult periods as the finals approach. "We've prepared well, with training camps in Japan and Qatar," said Komla. "We still have seven matches to go before we leave for India, and we know what to expect over there."
His charges have also just ended their campaign at the Jeux de la Francophonie (Francophone Games), an experience that Komla feels was hugely positive. "The Malian association made the good decision to take part in the Games," he said. "We were fortunate enough to be able to take on some good-quality U-23 teams, like Cameroon, Niger, Côte d'Ivoire, Congo and Congo DR. Those matches taught us a lot. When we get back to Bamako, we'll correct the mistakes that we identified in Côte d'Ivoire."
Mali's mental toughness
One aspect that should escape scrutiny is Mali's impressive mental strength. As Komla explained, the coaching staff have been addressing the psychological side of the game with players for a number of years. "Compared to other African countries, Mali are a step ahead when it comes to mental preparation. We've been working with these players since they started at U-13 level, and we've put a lot of emphasis on the mental aspect. You mustn't forget that they come from very poor families and that football is a way out for them. We teach them to play every game with the same rigour and the same focus.
"I've reminded my players that every match at the World Cup will be a final for us," he added. "If we win one, it'll be like winning the World Cup. And if we lose one, it'll be like losing the World Cup. That's my way of encouraging them to give everything on the pitch. I keep telling them that this World Cup won't be easy. That's why we need to work on our fitness, technique and mentality. My team isn't just strong in terms of tactics; it also has vast reserves of mental strength."
Mali's U-17 World Cup schedule:
Paraguay-Mali (6 October)
Turkey-Mali (9 October)
Mali-New Zealand (12 October)