Mali has never qualified for the senior World Cup, but the West African nation is steadily gaining in strength in the junior divisions. And with Nigeria absent for the U-17 World Cup that India hosts in October, Mali is one of the teams to beat. Just as they did for the previous edition in Chile, Les Aigles — The Eagles — qualified for the world event as African Cup of Nations champions in the U-17 category (2015 and 2017). “We are the only team in Africa to win that competition two times in a row,” says head coach Jonas Kokou Komla, who is in Mumbai for Friday’s draw ceremony.
Back at the 2015 African Cup of Nations, the Mali teens notched up performances that saw the country win its first ever continental title across age groups. It was followed by the surprise runner-up finish at the World Cup, in which they beat the likes of Croatia and Belgium to get to the summit clash. “Those achievements made people think that we can actually win titles. We qualified this time as champions of Africa. Now everyone is hoping and expecting us to win the World Cup,” says Komla. Blessed with the raw talent to succeed at the junior level, African nations have struggled to continue in the same vein in the senior ranks, mainly because the better players get scouted early by European clubs.
“As juniors, we are very strong because we grow up together and play the same style. But when the boys go to Europe, they get a different mentality with different coaches, and do not have enough time to gel together when they meet for the national team,” Komla says.
Former Barcelona star Seydou Keita, ex-Real Madrid midfielder Mahamadou Diarra and striker Frederic Kanoute, who turned out for Tottenham Hotspur and Sevilla during his career, are the prominent names to have played for the Mali senior team. In October, the runners-up from the last edition will put their strongest team forward. Buoyed by the continental success in May, Mali is indeed a strong contender for the title.