Mali look to continue winning against the odds
"Loyal towards destiny, we will be all united, one people, one goal," the players sang.
As they have done in each of their training sessions so far, Mali's practice on Tuesday ahead of their Under-17 World Cup semi-final match against Spain was preceded by the team's rendition of the country's national anthem. The song's accompanying jaunty military march music isn't being piped in yet at the practice ground adjacent to Navi Mumbai's DY Patil Stadium, yet there is no mistaking the lyrics featuring post-colonial themes of liberty, unity and striving to a brighter tomorrow.
Heading into the tournament, Mali might have felt that future that beckoned them was just over the horizon, a smooth run away. They arrived in India certainly among the title favourites. Mali might not appear to have the kind of footballing pedigree some other countries do - they are the only team in the semi-finals which hasn't won a senior World Cup -- but in terms of numbers, there is little doubt that they are a hotbed of talent, something that has been increasingly apparent in recent times. Runners-up to Nigeria in the previous edition in 2015, Mali qualified for this World Cup by defending their continental championships. To assume they would become the eighth African team in 16 editions to be crowned the World Champions might not have been a stretch.
However, the India sojourn hasn't exactly been a rolled-out red carpet to the coronation. The elements have seemingly conspired against them. They were greeted by a downpour in their first match, which was one of two group games played in rain. Their quarter-final against Ghana was played under a torrential downpour on a sponge-like outfield.
Mali have even gotten the short end of the stick in a tournament that has set records in terms of stadium attendances for an age-group event. They played their opening two games in Navi Mumbai's DY Patil Stadium. If you didn't know what you were looking for when you arrived in Mumbai, it's quite likely you would miss the fact that there is a World cup happening in the stadium itself. The optimistically-named "football takes over" posters for the event only really begin close to the Vashi bridge that connects the Navi Mumbai suburb to the city main. The fact that the stadium is built inside the DY Patil University campus gives it a semblance of activity, but the college students rushing around the concrete arena are mostly heading to classes.
"The issue is that Mumbai hasn't got many good teams," lamented one official at the Navi Mumbai stadium. The lack of interest is particularly stark in contrast to the other semi-final between Brazil and England, to be played in front of a sellout crowd of 66000 at Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium.
Of course, there is something to be said for the fact that Navi Mumbai isn't really prime football country - the DY Patil stadium is more familiar to Indians as the venue of multiple finals of the Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 tournament. Yet, the fact remains that Mali have not had it better even when they have left the city. After all, their matches in Goa and Guwahati were played in front of largely empty stands.
None of this would be apparent if you were simply to go by the way Mali have played. They have been one of the most entertaining teams to watch in this tournament, producing minute after minute of action. They have bullied opponents off the ball and shocked them with their pace on the attack. Churlish rivals have claimed they were facing U-23 sides. Mali features the tournament's leading goalscorer in Lassana N'diaye (5). They have scored the most goals (15) and had the most attempts on goal (127).
Much of this stupendously free-flowing mentality has been couched around a cold steel core. After their upset loss in the opening game, every game has been a virtual knockout for them. Their quarter-final against Ghana was played on, essentially, a churned up mud pit, which forced players to work twice as hard to move the ball half as far. Against a team as physically strong as they were, Mali managed to dig deep and find something in their character that got them over the line. Midfielder Salaam Jiddou shrugs it off. "In Mali we are habituated in playing in dry and wet conditions. Whatever is the condition we will manage," he says.
Since that attritional encounter, Mali have had a chance to rest. Now that they return to Navi Mumbai, they have a chance to think about the path ahead and get a step closer to realising their destiny. "The further we go in the competition, the bigger the opportunity for our players to be known by different clubs. It puts them in the limelight even more. But more than that I would want to win the World Cup," says coach Jonas Komla.