The FIFA U-20 World Cup often serves as a springboard to football's higher echelons. Adama Traore, though - as the recipient of the adidas Golden Ball, is a step ahead. Already a regular in Ligue 1, he featured for Mali's senior side a few months ahead of the big kick-off in New Zealand on 30th May. This means that the Lille midfielder was one of the known quantities among the 500-plus players going into the tournament and Traore has only enhanced his reputation over the last three weeks.
But if there was one thing that he could never have expected, it was winning the adidas Golden Ball, bestowed on the competition's best player. "I can’t believe it. I never thought I could win it," Traore told FIFA.com, with the trophy in his hands, and a big smile.
"I really imagined that this trophy would be given to a Brazilian or a Serbian player, not me," he continued. "Anyway, I want to thank my team-mates, without whom it would have been impossible to win this award. I’d also like to thank my friends, my family and all the Malian people who have supported us constantly. Honestly, I have no idea which one of both trophy gives me more joy: the bronze medal or this Golden Ball. The thing I'm sure of is that I'm very happy."
He arguably clinched the latter with a masterclass in the 3-1 victory over Senegal in the play-off for third place. "This World Cup and this match were really important occasions for me," Traore said following a fantastic all-round performance against Mali's west African neighbours. "I wasn't around for the African U-20 Championship, so I missed the semi-final that we lost against Senegal. My coach at Lille had kept me because they needed me domestically. After that I vowed to do everything I could to help my team-mates in the World Cup."
Honestly, I have no idea which one of both trophy gives me more joy: the bronze medal or this Golden Ball. The thing I'm sure of is that I'm very happy.
Traore certainly reached that goal. He finished the tournament in New Zealand having been involved in seven of his team's 11 goals, scoring four and setting up a further three, so it's maybe no surprise he ended up with the premier individual honour. Against the Lion Cubs of Teranga, he equalised with a wonderful free-kick and then put his team ahead with a right-footed piledriver after some nifty footwork. An assist for his country's third goal rounded off a decisive display. "I had a good match," the midfield powerhouse said afterwards - an understatement if ever there was one. "We gave everything. We really wanted to claim third place," he added. "We knew that it wasn't going to be an easy match: playing against another African country is never straightforward. Senegal knew all about us."
The Senegalese knew that if the jewel in the Malian crown sparkled, they would be in for a tough time. Traore’s performance certainly came as no surprise to Senegal goalkeeper Ibrahima Sy, even if he was caught out for the starlet's first goal. "He plays regularly in Ligue 1 and often gets called up to Mali's senior side. It's no accident! Adama Traore is a very good player, but I foolishly underestimated what he could do with the free-kick," the Lorient keeper said. "I hope he keeps doing what he has been doing, without letting it get to his head. I think that's the secret to success."
The Mali No19 could hardly be more humble, putting his pivotal contributions for the Eaglets down to nothing more than tactical chance. "If people have seen more of me at this World Cup, it's simply down to my position. I've had more of the ball here since I've played in a No10 role, whereas for my club I usually operate as a No8," he said. He went on to scoff at the suggestion that his status as a full international carries with it a certain influence: "I'm right at the beginning of my international career! I'm a minnow for the [senior] national team: I can't be so pretentious as to think that I'm a big fish for the U-20s."
The evidence suggests otherwise. Traore was the driving force behind Mali's fairy-tale run in New Zealand, in which they confounded many observers' expectations by progressing to the semi-finals before sealing third place for the first time in 16 years. "We deserved to get as far as we did and I think that we have every reason to be proud. Of course we could harbour regrets at not reaching the final, but I'd rather take away the positives. And this bronze medal is a fine reward for us," said the Lille schemer, who is a huge fan of Lionel Messi.
Messi also lit up the FIFA U-20 World Cup, in his case at Netherlands 2005, prior to embarking on a glorious career. The same applied to the likes of Ronaldinho, Andres Iniesta, Davor Suker and more recently Paul Pogba. Adama Traore looks well placed to join that elite club, but he is not getting ahead of himself. "I don't even dream of it. The level of football is very high at the U-20 World Cup, but from my limited experience I know that the step-up to the senior side is huge. Tactically, technically, physically, I'm afraid I know what's in store for us is much more difficult!"