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FIFA U-20 World Cup

Maiga, Mali's giant go-getter

L to R, Youssouf Kone of Mali of Mali, Adama Traore, Hamidou Maiga
© Getty Images

Standing 6'6 tall, his strapping 90kg frame almost all muscle, Hamidou Maiga's presence rarely goes unnoticed on the pitch.

The No6 is the defensive pillar of a Mali team who have reached the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 semi-finals thanks in no small part to their impregnability. Les Aiglons have only conceded four times in their run through the rounds, two of which came in their second group-stage outing against Serbia, whom they face again in the last four.

It just so happens that Maiga sat out the first meeting between the countries through suspension. The defender is an embodiment of the double-edged sword of power. His ox-like physique can work both for and against him; when he mistimes or misjudges a challenge even slightly, the repercussions tend to be large. Mali's tournament opener against Mexico is a case in point: Maiga was given his marching orders after two particularly rugged tackles and although his sending-off did not impact the final scoreline on that occasion, his absence was conspicuous in the 2-0 defeat by Serbia. The youngster is aware of this slippery slope, but feels the risk is worth taking. In his words, "I consciously go in hard on opponents and try to impose my authority. That's something I've inherited from my father!"

While the 20-year-old is a giant in a quite literal sense, this is also a fitting figurative description of the status enjoyed by his dad, Moctar, back at home. Maiga Sr, also a defender, won 40 international caps and was a fixture in the Mali side that were runners-up at the 1972 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. With 1970 African Footballer of the Year Salif Keita in their ranks, many consider that team the country's greatest ever, a view that Hamidou endorsed: "Mali have never had a better team than the one in 1972. Wherever I go, people talk to me about them. My dad is obviously a role model, but following in his footsteps isn't easy."

I consciously go in hard on opponents and try to impose my authority. That's something I've inherited from my father!

Comparisons between the two are practically inevitable, particularly when there is such a huge resemblance between them. Expectations are equally sizeable following over 40 years of waiting for a repeat of what Maiga Sr's vintage achieved. Despite his admission that his father's heritage can weigh heavy, Hamidou also knows what a blessing it is: "My dad hasn't missed a single one of my games. He stayed at home, but he calls me every day. We go back over the matches together: he gives me advice, telling me what I did well and badly. His input is invaluable for me."

Maiga Sr is not alone in being glued to his screen in Mali. The imagination of an entire country has been captured by the team's exploits in progressing to the semi-finals of the U-20 World Cup for the first time in 16 years. According to Hamidou, the squad can feel this support from afar and are keen to repay it: "The Malian people have to stay up very late to follow our matches because of the time difference, but I can tell you that there are a lot of them in front of their TVs! The players have said to each other that we want to do something for them. We are ambassadors with a mission. We've vowed to reach the final for them."

The Eaglets are one step away from making this happen. To get this far, they have negotiated a tough group featuring Uruguay in addition to Mexico and Serbia, before dispatching Ghana and then taking on a Germany side who had scored 17 goals ahead of their quarter-final encounter. This was not enough to faze their rock-solid stopper, who did not put a foot wrong – either at the back or when launching attacks – against the European champions. Nevertheless, he remains modest and eager to keep improving: "I may be big size-wise, but my game still needs to grow. I'm still constantly learning, but I think I'm on the right track."

There seems little doubt that Maiga is on the path to the top and Mali may well be too: "I don't think many people were backing us against Germany, but we want to go down in history, and Germany were in our way. So we had no other choice but to win, for the team, for our people and for our families."

Considering these words come from a hulking 6'6 colossus, it would take a brave person to argue.

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