In every tournament there’s that one annoyingly plucky side that no one likes – apart from the people from said country – that reach the latter stages. They’re insistent on spoiling the party, don’t particularly play a likeable brand of football and they often have little flair to entertain the neutrals. At the Africa Cup of Nations that team has been Mali. In a tournament of open football, Mali have been cautious, reminiscent of the way the favourites, Ghana and Ivory Coast, have played, but perhaps even more cautious.
The Eagles took an early lead in the opening game against Guinea, only to be content to sit back on the lead for the rest of the game and on the balance of play Guinea deserved at least a point by the end of the game. They lost 2-0 to Ghana in their second game and were widely criticised for their negative approach even after they went a goal down. After being 1-0 down to Botswana they completed a turnaround to win the final group game and seal their qualification into the knockout stages.
Subsequently, then, few fancied them against the co-hosts Gabon in the quarter-finals, yet they exceeded expectations rallying when they were a goal behind and then consummately dispatching all their penalties as they danced their way to the semi-finals to meet Côte d’Ivoire.
Where does this composure in the face of adversity stem from? Much of it comes from coach Alain Giresse – a terrific, dynamic midfielder in his playing days, part of the legendary, magical diamond of France in the 1980s – who has assembled a young team (the third youngest squad at the tournament) with no stars, bar Seydou Keita, but which possesses the much-admired grit, that the Frenchman himself showed as a player, when the going gets tough.
Funnily enough, this attribute of playing without fear was evident in Giresse’s tenure with Gabon. Giresse had taken over in 2006 with Gabon 110th in the FIFA rankings and he had propelled them at a peak of 30th by 2009, narrowly missing out on qualification for the 2010 World Cup – beating Ghana and Morocco (home and away) in the process. Despite missing out on World Cup qualification, by finishing second they had qualified for the 2010 Cup of Nations – for the first time in a decade. High expectations at the 2010 Cup of Nations were Giresse’s downfall – he set himself a target of reaching the knockout stages – as they bowed out in the group stages and he was subsequently sacked, even though they exited via goals scored and claimed a historic 1-0 win over Cameroon.
From a team of individuals to a team
Gabon’s loss was Mali’s gain. For much of the noughties Mali boasted some of the finest collection of box-to-box, powerhouse midfielders in the world; Mahamadou Diarra was an instrumental water-carrier in cautious Real Madrid La Liga-winning sides under Fabio Capello and all-conquering Lyon team in Ligue 1, Seydou Keita hasn’t looked out of place in Barcelona’s tika-taka style of play and Mohamed Sissoko, Keita’s cousin, has had a distinguished career with some of Europe’s top clubs. There was also French-born striker Fredi Kanoute who showered himself in UEFA Cup glory with Sevilla.
Yet the form of those individuals at club level often hasn’t been replicated at international level. The collection of big-names was mouth-watering in theory but vomit-inducing in practice. Indeed, they failed to reach the knockout stages in the 2008 and 2010 editions. Giresse quickly set about improving the psychological aspects of the team when he took over, instilling ‘a mindset befitting a national team’, he says. As an unintentional blessing, Mali has ditched some of the star names or star names have ditched them – Diarra has struggled to find a club after a serious injury, Sissoko has declared himself unavailable for selection and Fredi Kanoute has retired. “The time of big-name players is finished – I can’t count on that aspect any more. That’s why I’m focusing on rebuilding and improving the overall set-up,” says the pious Giresse.
The sole survivor from the star names remains Keita who remains an invaluable addition. “He gives us lots of good advice that stems from playing with the best club in the world, such as encouraging us to release the ball more quickly and to always try to push forward,” says midfielder Bakaye Traore. “If you listen to those kinds of pointers, football instantly becomes simpler.”
Pre-tournament, Giresse was reticent with his target for Mali – being ambitious with Gabon had cost him his job, after all, his aim this time around was simple: “Do as well as possible, without harbouring any regrets or failing to live up to our potential.” Although they’re unlikely to go further with Ivory Coast in their way, few could argue that they’ve failed to live up to their expections.
With all that said, this Mali side are often unspectacular, defensively they have looked very disorganised at times and no player has particularly stood out, but for one of the youngest sides in the tournament they have performed admirably when the going has got tough. They’re a work in progress, then, but with a semi-final berth and the ability of Alain Giresse to transform sides from barely workaday to cohesive, well-drilled units over time, as he showed with Gabon, and with the fine blend of youth and experience in the squad, Mali may become a force to be reckoned with in the near future.