In the early 2000s a clutch of talented Malian players began to make a name for themselves in European football. As talented as the likes of Seydou Keita, Frederic Kanoute, Mohamed Sissoko and Mahamadou Diarra were, however, they were unable to take their country to the FIFA World Cup™ finals or win the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. The closest they came to the second of those goals was in reaching the semi-finals in 2002 – when they hosted the tournament – and again in Tunisia two years later.
Though a new generation, led by Modibo Maiga, made the semi-finals once more in 2012 and 2013, Mali are anxious to break new ground under coach Alain Giresse, the mastermind of the campaign four years ago, who is now in his second stint with the Eagles.
Discussing his next assignment, the third round of the qualifiers for Russia 2018 – in which Mali will take on Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco and Gabon – Giresse told FIFA.com: “We’ve been drawn in a difficult group, but that’s only to be expected when you look at the 20 teams who’ve got through to this final round. Look at the other groups, especially Group B, with Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria and Zambia. What makes it even tougher is that only one team from each group will go through to the finals.”
Refusing to get carried away about his side’s chances, Giresse said: “I don’t want to put a percentage on it, but we’ll be giving it all we’ve got. I know every match will be tough and that we won’t be favourites. Côte d’Ivoire look to be the strongest side, and then there’s Morocco and Gabon. We’ll be fighting hard to try and top the group.”
*The Frenchman will be coming up against some familiar opponents in the next few months, having coached Gabon between 2006 and 2010, and taken on Côte d’Ivoire on several occasions in his previous stints with Mali and Senegal: “I know Gabon well, even if the team has changed a lot, and I came up against the Ivoirians a few times when I was in charge of Senegal. The Morocco coach, Herve Renard, and the Côte d’Ivoire coach, Michel Dussuyer, are both French, and we all know each other well.”
Giresse does not have particularly fond memories of his previous encounters with Côte d’Ivoire. In his first tenure with Mali, he lost out to the Elephants in the semi-finals of the 2012 continental finals. And, as he explained, he again found the Ivorians blocking his path during a subsequent spell with Senegal: “It must be fate, but there they were again, in the final round of the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, when we went down to a (Solomon) Kalou goal. I hope things go a lot better this time around. We’ll be playing a mini-championship this time. Back in 2013, qualification came down to a final two-leg knockout round.”
Regardless of past events, the Eagles of Mali will not be easy prey for the Elephants or, for that matter, the Atlas Lions of Morocco and the Panthers of Gabon. Yet, even though he has some talented players to call on, Giresse does not see his team as favourites: “Mali are going through a transitional phase. We’ve got some experienced players, some youngsters, and a few others who are coming through. That’s pretty much Mali for you. We’re not up there yet with Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and the other big teams in Africa.”
The draw for the final round of the African qualifying competition for Russia 2018 threw up some tight groups, and forecasting which teams will go through looks an all-but impossible task. Venturing an opinion nonetheless, Giresse said: “If you want my prediction, I’d say that Tunisia start slight favourites against Congo DR, Libya and Guinea. As for the Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria and Zambia group, I’d go for Les Fennecs. In our group, I can see Côte d’Ivoire going all the way. And Senegal and South Africa look to me to have a bit more about them than Burkina Faso and Cape Verde. In the last group, Ghana and Egypt should be the ones fighting it out for qualification. I can’t see Congo and Uganda causing a shock.”
*Eyes on the prize*
**Fourth in the continental finals in 2002 and 2004, and third in 2012 and 2013, Mali went out in the group phase two years later, the victims of a very tough draw. With their place at Gabon 2017 already secure, Giresse discussed their prospects there: “We always go into tournaments looking to do the best we can so we can win the title. Everybody wants to win the African title in Gabon. It’s impossible to say who’s going to do it though. Who can predict who’s going to win the EUROs? The big teams don’t always make it, and vice versa. There are always going to be surprises."
“Like I said, every team dreams of winning the Africa Cup of Nations. So why not us? If we win it, we’d get a place at the Confederations Cup in Russia next year. It would be great to be champions of Africa and to play in such a big competition, though the World Cup qualifiers are still our number-one objective.”