Adama Traore shines brightest at under-20 World Cup
Adama Traore was relegated to the side-stage on the final day of the 2015 under-20 World Cup in New Zealand. But not to be outdone, he produced a performance and two wonderful goals that were more than worthy of the main event to inspire Mali to a 3-1 victory over Senegal in the third-place playoff, and to cement Traore's status as the player of the tournament.
His first was a perfectly curled free kick into the top corner, while his second saw him neatly turn away from a challenge before drilling a precise shot into the back of the net off his weaker right foot. He capped off an impressive display with a nice first-time pass around the corner to Diadie Samassekou to complete the scoring in second-half stoppage time.
The triumph of competition winners Serbia was a collective one. Their impressive coach Veljko Paunovic formed a determined and united group who were well-structured in their play and possessed enough quality in key areas to see off each and every one of their opponents. Likewise, Brazil's run to the final was built on defensive stability and the decisive yet inconsistent contributions of a cadre of fleet-footed forwards.
But on an individual basis, no one shone brighter than Traore. He may not have had a winners' medal to cherish come the end of the tournament, but he was nevertheless a deserving recipient of the Golden Ball award for the competition's best player.
The 19-year-old was the hub of an attack that led Mali to equal their best-ever performance in the U20 World Cup. Traore received the ball in the final third nearly one-and-a-half times more often than any of his teammates, and was both his side's most prolific shooter and their top creator of chances. He provided a direct contribution to seven of their 11 goals.
A master manipulator of the ball, with a delicate touch and a keen eye for a pass, Traore was the slickest attacking midfielder on show in New Zealand. His gait is deceptively languid, but in reality he is just as adept at linking steadily with teammates 40 yards from goal as he is at accelerating his side's play with a quicksilver dribble or a well-weighted through-ball. He also displayed a good understanding of how and when to vary the rhythm of his play.
The Bamako-born player ended the tournament with four goals and three assists in seven starts. He was the decisive player in the round of 16 win over Ghana, in which he scored and provided two assists, and once more against African opposition in Saturday's defeat of Senegal. Along with the tricky Aboubacar Doumbia and Dieudonne Gbakle, he formed one of the most attractive attacking midfield lines in the competition.
"He's a great player," said Mali coach Fanyeri Diarra after the win over Senegal. "And I have no doubt he has a great future in the game."
It wasn't a perfect tournament for the Lille player. Serbia twice successfully shut him down in the group stage and semifinal encounters between the sides. Per ESPN Stats & Info, those two matches saw him produce his two lowest expected goals contributions (expected goals + expected assists) of the tournament. He will need to learn how best to use his talent to overcome such obstacles, but this knowledge can only be expected to arrive with further experience.
Traore enjoyed a breakthrough season in Ligue 1 during the 2014-15 campaign. A raft of early season injuries to other players gave him his opportunity and he impressed in a slightly deeper role than that in which he has shone over the last month. His Senegalese teammate Idrissa Gueye has taken Traore under his wing and the club expect big things from a player they signed from the Bamako-based academy of former Angers and Nice midfielder Jean-Marc Guillou.
Seydou Keita was the Golden Ball winner the last time Mali finished third at the U20 World Cup, in 1999. But it is Lionel Messi, another previous winner of the award, whom Traore looks up to and tries to use as a reference for his game. He has already been capped five times by the full national team but knows that he still has a lot of hard work ahead of him if he is to convert his youth success into a prosperous career at senior level.
"The level of football is very high at the U20 World Cup, but from my limited experience I know that the step-up to the senior side is huge," he told FIFA.com. "Tactically, technically, physically, I'm afraid I know what's in store for us is much more difficult."
Traore does, though, look well-placed to overcome such hurdles and develop into a top-level player. His performances in New Zealand have simply underlined the promise that had been evident during his previous appearances for Lille. Humble and determined, he can be expected to use his triumphs over the previous four weeks as a springboard for future success.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.