Mali can now breathe easily. Some observers had thought that despite their solid rearguard, the Eagles would struggle at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015, largely because of a lack of threat going forward. As it turned out, Adama Traore - seen by many as the side's great hope - confounded those expectations by scoring the vital first goal late on in his side's opening 2-0 win over Mexico.
*El Tri had *piled on the pressure, with Hirving Lozano flying down the flanks and Alejandro Diaz doing his best leading the line, but their efforts were not rewarded. A yellow wall marshalled by captain Ichaka Diarra halted their every advance. So far, so predictable: after all, Mali booked their ticket to New Zealand after conceding just once in the group stage of the CAF African U-20 Championship.
However, the flip side of the coin was the fact that Mali only scored four times in their continental group – five fewer than eventual champions Nigeria, who nevertheless went through to the semi-finals with a worse record in terms of points. Saliou Guindo and Souleymane Sissoko did their best, but goals proved elusive, so coach Fanyeri Diarra was able to call up a starlet for the global showpiece unavailable to him in the qualifying competition. The decision to send for Traore was immediately vindicated against Mexico.
"It was really emotional when we finally scored," a laughing Traore told FIFA.comafter the encounter. "We went over to the corner flag and danced to celebrate. We had heard a drum in the stands during the match, so that was our background beat." The Lille schemer turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for his side, offering a spark and versatility in front of their well-oiled defensive machine.
"Sometimes I play as a No8 and other times I have to act as a No10. I think that I largely operated as a No8 [against Mexico], but I don't attach much importance to it. Personally speaking I have no preference whatsoever for any position. That's what's expected of me: what matters most is to do what's asked of me, irrespective of what part of the pitch I find myself in," Traore said.
Eyes on the prize
Traore struck at a key juncture. Following a tumultuous period featuring three sendings-off in 11 minutes – two for Mexico and one for Mali – the Africans took the game by the scruff of the neck, making their numerical advantage count and going for broke in search of victory. The teenage midfielder's header off a free-kick found the net with just 14 minutes left to play, before Dieudonne Gbakle sealed the win a few minutes later.
Despite his jovial character – he cannot conceal a smile – Traore is keeping his feet firmly on the ground and is not taking his eyes off the ball. He knows full well that the sweet taste of an opening victory will go sour if Mali fail to build on it with positive results in their next couple of matches.
"Right now we will shake each other's hands and congratulate one another on a good performance. But we have our second match against Serbia on Wednesday; we know it won't be easy and we will have to be well prepared."
On this note, the Malians did their homework after getting their own job done, staying in the stands following their match to watch Uruguay's win over the Serbians. As Traore put it: "We have to familiarise ourselves with our upcoming opponents, especially Serbia, who we're up against next."
The Lille starlet clearly enjoyed that process, but is adamant that his side will not deviate from the approach that has got them this far: "I like seeing what type of game other teams play, how they set up on the pitch, how they defend. Still, we will keep trying to do our thing, playing the same way as ever. We're not going to change much; we don't want to put any extra pressure on ourselves."