“New Zealand is a wonderful country, even if it is a very long way from home,” said Fanyeri Diarra, the coach of Mali’s U-20 national team, in conversation with FIFA.com. “We don’t get the chance to go there every day, so we need to make the most of it.”
Diarra should know what he is talking about, having made the 17,000-kilometre journey from Bamako to Auckland once before in his career, when he took charge of the Mali side that contested the FIFA U-17 World Cup New Zealand 1999.
Now 57, he is hoping the experience he has accrued in the 16 years since then will serve his charges in good stead when they take on the rest of the world at New Zealand 2015.
“We didn’t manage to make the second round on that occasion,” he said, casting his mind back to his first trip to the Land of the Long White Cloud. “The draw wasn’t kind to us, though. We found ourselves in a very tough group with Germany and the two eventual finalists: Brazil and Australia.
“Even so, we managed to hold our own, drawing two games and losing to Australia, which cost us a place in the next round. I think we gave a good account of ourselves and we hope to do the same thing this year, while trying to go as far as we can.”
The signs are that Diarra’s wishes could well be fulfilled. Much has changed in the last 16 years in Malian football, which has made great strides, with the likes of Frederic Kanoute, Mahamadou Diarra and Seydou Keita helping to take Les Aigles into the continental elite, thanks to back-to-back third places at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 2012 and 2013.
As well as the senior team’s burgeoning reputation, Les Aiglons also have no little talent and an experienced coach to guide them.
“I’m not the same person I was in 1999,” explained Diarra, a former Mali defender and team captain. “I’ve grown a lot in the job, thanks to everything I’ve been through, both at club level and in international football, and at youth and senior level. At the time, I’d only been coaching for eight years, but I’m a different coach these days.”
Discussing the task of improving on Mali’s performance at the U-17 world finals 16 years ago, he said: “It’s not so much New Zealand 1999 that rankles with me as the CAF African U-20 Championships, where we failed to reach the final. We achieved our objective of reaching the World Cup but we want to go even further and win matches and titles.”
Like their coach, his U-20 charges have also gained in experience, albeit in a shorter timeframe. Held in Senegal, the African finals provided them with lots of valuable lessons, as did the pre-tournament training camp in Toulouse.
Diarra is also looking forward to the return of two or three key players who missed the African finals, among them highly promising Lille midfielder Adama Traore, who already has a handful of full international caps to his name.
“We’re banking on him a lot,” said the coach of his star asset. “His club promised to release him for the World Cup.”
Diarra is also delighted to have first-choice goalkeeper Djigui Diarra back to full fitness following his injury in the lead-up to the African Championships, where Sorry Ibrahima Traore deputised for him. Even so, the wily coach refused to say if the returning Diarra will be reinstated in the starting line-up: “I haven’t decided who will be in goal for our opening match against Mexico.”
It is little wonder that Diarra should be giving careful consideration as to who dons the gloves in New Zealand. Having picked up valuable experience with Stade Malien in the CAF Champions League, Djigui Diarra has long been regarded as one of Malian football’s most exciting prospects. That said, his replacement barely put a foot wrong in Senegal, keeping three clean sheets in the group phase to give coach Diarra a problem to ponder.
“My team doesn’t have any strong points or weaknesses and it’s pretty well balanced in every department, with a lot of technical and mental attributes,” he said. “We did pretty well in defence in the African Championships and not quite so well up front, which was mainly due to some of the players lacking match fitness and form at that time of the year.”
Coach Diarra knows his players will need to be at their best in New Zealand: “The U-20 World Cup is an elite tournament. All the teams taking part in it have a lot of quality,” he said, pondering the challenge awaiting his side in Group D, where they will face Mexico, Serbia and Uruguay.
Signing off, he added: “We’ll be up against another opponent in the shape of the time difference. It unsettled the team back in 1999, and it’s another thing that I’m wary of. We’re competitors, though, and it’s up to us to adapt to the situation.”