Mali’s current football team could become one of the best African teams in recent memory. Here’s why.
In 1972, on the turf of the newly built Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo, Congo and Mali played a fierce encounter to be crowned champions of the African continent.
The Malians were a surprise contenders in the final. It had been their first ever appearance at the tournament since its inception in 1957.
However, led by Marseille’s veteran, Salif Keita, the country marched through hosts Cameroon, Kenya and Togo to reach the final against Congo.
Ultimately Mali would succumb to a 3-2 defeat, but the performance would prove to be the catalyst for a new emerging generation in the country.
A golden era
Thirty years later, Mali were the hosts for the 2002 African Cup of Nations.
Led by players like former Real Madrid star, Mahamadou Diarra and former Barcelona ace, Seydou Keita, the Malians marched to a stalwart semi-final finish ultimately losing to eventual champions Cameroon.
Two years later with players like former Liverpool star Mohamed Sissoko and African Player of the Year, Frederic Kanoute, the nation reached the same heights once more before being knocked out by Morocco.
Subsequent back to back third-place finishes in 2012 and 2013 with the likes of Seydou Keita captaining the side, ensured Mali’s most successful era since the inception of football.
However, even with the likes of Keita and Kanoute, the nation failed to qualify for the World Cup.
The closest the country came to that feat was during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers where they were five points away from making it to the South African tournament.
A new generation
Mali’s latest crop of young stars could have the potential to better the feat of their predecessors.
Since 2015, the country has enjoyed a plethora of success in international youth tournaments.
Mali’s U20 side finished 3rd in the 2015 U20 World Cup. Just a few months later the country finished runners up in the U17 World Cup. They also won the African Cup of Nations in the same year.
In 2017, Mali’s U17s won the African Cup of Nations for the second time, and last year the country’s U2Os won the same tournament for the first time in their history.
The players behind the country’s successes are hugely talented and they are beginning to see similar results at senior level.
Mali recently thrashed Ghana 3-0 in a friendly playing against the likes of Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers.
After topping their group in the 2019 African Cup of Nations in Egypt, they were unlucky to narrowly lose to Ivory Coast in the first knockout round last year.
But it will serve as an important learning curve for the young Malians and it is only a small flicker of things to come at senior level.
Mali’s squad depth is one of the most impressive on the African continent.
In defence, Molla Wague is an accomplished centre-back who has played at a top level in Spain, England, France and Italy. Alongside him, 22-year-old Mamadou Fofana has been a stalwart for Metz over the past few seasons. He was a key part of the U17 side which came runners up at the 2015 World Cup.
Left-back Youssouf Kone of Lyon is another impressive talent. He is currently looking to make his mark on loan in La Liga at Elche.
At right-back, Hamari Traore of Rennes will be playing Champions League football. Meanwhile, Falaye Sacko has been one of the best full-backs in Liga NOS over the last few seasons.
Depth in midfield is exciting for Mali
The depth in midfield is hugely impressive. Players like Amadou Haidara, Diadie Samassekou and Yves Bissouma are all still under the age of 25. And on top of that, they are all playing top-level football in the Bundesliga and the Premier League.
Abdoulaye Doucoure of Everton will soon be added to the mix as well. (He has recently changed his allegiance from France and committed himself to the Malian national team.) There is also an outside chance of Adama Traore of Wolves switching his nationality. However, the powerful winger has so far elected to represent Spain instead despite being called up by both nations.
Even without Traore the attack is impressive.
It is made up of players like Moussa Djenepo of Southampton who has begun this season in fine form. Furthermore, Porto’s Moussa Marega and Red Bull Salzburg’s Sekou Koita are regarded as two of the brightest forwards on the African continent.
Reims forward, 19-year-old El-Bilal Toure scored on his national team debut against Ghana. He is also one to watch having netted four goals in 15 games since making his debut in Ligue 1.
Reasons behind success
Seven players from Mali’s latest squad were developed by Mali’s JMG academy.
The academy was established in 2007 by Jean Marc Guillou with the intention to create a football dynasty in the country.
Guillou formerly had similar endeavours in Ivory Coast creating the so-called golden generation of Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Salomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue and Gervinho as well as many others with ASEC Mimosas.
Guillou moved on from the Ivory Coast and set up camp in Mali.
The academy has a unique system. Players begin playing with their bare feet before ‘earning’ their football boots and they train twice a day for seven years.
Inspired by Barcelona’s La Masia academy, the emphasis is on possession and mastering the art of ‘tiki-taka’ football.
A unique approach behind success
Mamadou Wad, a coach with JMG believes the success of the academy lies in its unique approach.
‘At 15-16 the boys start playing against older senior teams within the region, but they play without boots against players with boots,’ he tells First Time Finish.
The academy’s unique approach intends to encourage and develop the players’ technical qualities.
‘We bring to the boys what they really need. We bring them the opportunity to just play without worrying about having money, eating food and sleeping.’
JMG only work with around 12-15 players within every age group who live in the academy and spend most of their time there.
JMG’s approach has seen them develop strong links with French first tier clubs and Red Bull Salzburg.
Players like Samassekou, Mohamed Camara and Haidara all ended up at Red Bull Salzburg. Meanwhile Bissouma earnt himself a move to Lille after impressing in the club’s academy.
Another driving factor is the nation’s biggest football icon, Kanoute, who has set up his own football agency; 12Managament. Its intention is to bring some of the continent’s best football talent to Europe.
Kanoute’s work has seen Malian players like Djenepo and Koita make moves to Europe to continue their development. And there could be more emerging soon with 18-year-old Mamadou Sangare tipped for a break-out season in Red Bull Salzburg’s, Liefering, this year.
The sky is the limit for Mali
Mali’s record at youth tournaments in the past five years is mightily impressive. With the team’s current players impressing for their club sides it will only be a matter of time until that success transcends into the senior side.
The most exciting prospect about Mali is how young the current team is. The average age of Mali’s most recent squad was 24.95. Some of the core players like Haidara, Djenepo and Koita are still U23, meanwhile, Samassekou and Yves are only just a year older at 24.
That suggests the players haven’t even hit their prime yet.
Strong belief in the current generation
Mamadou Wad believes this is the best generation Mali have had in their entire history.
‘I am convinced we will have the same success as we did in Ivory Coast. We work closely with the Football Federation of Mali and I think Mali could be one of the best teams in Africa for the next fifteen years.
Other academies have tried to emulate our approach in Mali and in general Malian youth football is getting better. During our first year it was hard to find even five good players and now it is difficult to take less than fifteen players. Kids are starting to play football in the streets earlier now.’
With the popularity of football surging in Mali that will mean more and more talents emerging from the nation.
The country’s recent 3-0 victory over Ghana was only a small sample of what is to come.
Flicker’s of JMG’s technical influence on the players has been present in recent performances. It was exemplified by this outstanding tiki-taka goal scored against Angola in the AFCON last summer:
Complete control & a long range screamer 😱
— CAF (@CAF_Online) September 29, 2020
Looking towards the future, Mali are in a group with Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers and finishing top is a realistic possibility. That would take Mali with just a two-game tie away from the World Cup in Qatar.
A feat never achieved by the nation, but now it’s within this young generation’s grasp.