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For the first three years of their formal training in Mali, players are given one clear instruction. “No boots, no shin pads,” says Tangara Yacouba, media manager of the team at the U17 World Cup. So goes the training routine on grass, astro-turf, and then on muddy pitches to get the boys to adjust to different conditions. “When you play barefoot, you get the real feel of the ball and you learn how to control it much better.” Yacouba adds.
It’s a tactic that was introduced in Mali about 10 years ago, when former France international Jean-Marc Guillou came to the West African nation to groom the raw talent. The 71-year-old arrived in Mali having tasted success in other African countries, mainly Ivory Coast. He was the national coach in Ivory Coast in 1999-2000 and was one of the prominent individuals who marshalled their most successful football generation. The Toure brothers — Yaya and Kolo, who have played for top European clubs — are the most famous alumni of his academy. While the elder Kolo first found fame at Arsenal, Guillou was the one who had given Arsene Wenger his first managerial gig, recruiting ‘Le Professeur’ as his assistant at French Ligue 2 team Cannes in 1983.
And though Mali has never been a footballing giant in the senior division, the veteran French coach has been one of the driving forces for the country’s success at the U-17 level in the past two years.
Guillou first travelled to Africa when he became coach of Ivorian club ASEC Mimosas in 1993. But it wasn’t till a decade later that he shifted his attention to Mali. “He saw some potential in us and decided that he wanted to help capture and groom that talent,” says Yacouba.
Guillou’s played a significant role in the development of Mali, setting up the Academie JMG Mali in Bamako where players were recruited from as early as the age of nine. The basics of each player were closely observed, along with a coach development programme. It all came together when Mali, against the odds, went on to win the 2015 U17 African Cup of Nations, and followed it up with a runners-up finish at the World Cup later that year.
Earlier this year, Mali picked up a second consecutive continental title to qualify for the World Cup in India. “You could say that Jean-Marc is responsible for 30 to 40 per cent of Mali’s success,” Yacouba adds.
Ever since the 1978 World Cupper set up his residential academy, his wards have steadily caught the eye of European clubs. Six of his most recent batch now ply their trade at the likes of Lille OSC and AS Monaco in France and Red Bull Salzburg in Austria.
Even the current U17 squad in India has four players from his academy – including skipper Mohamed Camara. “Rich or poor, it doesn’t matter. Only the best players he can find get selected to his academy,” says Yacouba. “I get so many calls from parents wanting to send their kids to him, but he picks only the best.”
In the history of the U17 World Cup, Africa has been the most successful continent, winning seven of the 16 titles so far – Nigeria winning a record five and Ghana two.
Mali made their presence felt at the last edition, and were one of the pre-tournament favourites coming to India. While other teams have fallen by the wayside, Mali is the only one flying the African flag in the final four.
Under coach Jonas Komla, the team has combined traditional African athleticism with superior ball control. The Turks were blown away by their pace during the group stage, and they romped past Iraq to register a 5-1 win in the Round of 16. Playing on a rain-drenched pitch in Guwahati in the quarterfinal against Ghana, the Malians maintained their composure and held the ball far better than their fellow Africans.
The current crop is the crème of the crop, having been selected from a base of 1,500. Together, they’re paving the way in football for their country, and doing it with a patriotic fervour. On Monday evening, at a Navi Mumbai training ground – with only a few cops and essential ground staff present – practice began, like it always does, with them singing the national anthem, hand on heart.