Mali have hugely impressive at the FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015. Easy on the eye, the effervescent Aiglons have served up some delightful football, stroking the ball around with aplomb and scoring some superb goals, three of which sank Ghana in the Round of 16.
The Africans have found the back of the net six times since the start of the tournament, with Lille duo Adama Traore and Dieudonne Gbkale involved in each and every one of those goals, either as scorer or provider. While Traore needs no second introduction to Ligue 1 observers, having been one of the revelations of last season and earned his first senior cap for his country in March this year, Gbkale was something of an unknown quantity on his arrival at New Zealand 2015.
Like Traore, who was not released by his club, Gbkale had to sit out the CAF African U-20 Championships, the continental qualifying competition for the world finals. “I was injured,” said the midfielder, explaining his absence to FIFA.com. “I had every faith in my mates though. I had no doubt they’d qualify for the World Cup. And I wasn’t wrong.”
“We managed to make the last four of the qualifiers without them, though they definitely add something to the team when they’re around,” said Mali coach Fanyeri Diarra, in reference to the Lille livewires. “I think people might have expected Adama to impress here, but Dieudonne’s performances don’t surprise me anymore to be honest. He’s got the lot and I’ve known him for a long time. I know exactly what he can bring to a team.”
The elusive wide man did not take long to show the watching world why Diarra took him to New Zealand 2015, drifting in off the left wing to score a gem of a goal in Mali’s opening match against Mexico. He was at it again in the last-16 tie against the Ghanaians, cutting in off the right flank this time before curling a shot into the top right corner.
“My team-mates and I just want to do good things in this tournament,” said Mali’s man of the moment. “We want to represent our country the best we can. Our people might be thousands of kilometres away but we feel as if they’re right here supporting us. We’re trying to return the favour on the pitch by putting in some good performances.”
Dieudonne’s performances don’t surprise me anymore to be honest. He’s got the lot.
Gbakle, Traore and fellow Lille colleague Youssouf Kone have been doing Mali proud on the international stage for some time now, playing their part in Les Dogues’ bid to re-establish themselves in Ligue 1’s top four.
“It’s a great club,” said Gbakle. “I feel very happy there and completely settled-in now. Obviously, having a couple of compatriots around has helped. I’ve known Adama since we were little kids. We went to the Jean-Marc Guillou Academy from an early age and we’ve grown up together. He’s like a brother to me.”
As their stats in New Zealand show, the gifted duo have an instinctive and mutually appreciative partnership. “Adama is a great player and he’s made the step-up up to the Lille first team and Mali’s national side,” said Dieudonne, repaying the compliment. “It hasn’t changed our relationship one little bit.
“We hang out together all the time and I hope I can see even more of him by making it into the Lille first team myself. There’s more to the Mali side than just him and me, though. We’re a team and we’ve all known each other since we were little kids. I think it shows on the pitch, in the way we link up with each other.”
Gbakle and Co will have another opportunity to demonstrate their telepathy in Sunday’s quarter-final against Germany in Christchurch. “We’ve got our sights set on going further, on going all the way to the final,” added the No18, rounding off our chat. “We’ve got the potential, I’m sure of that. We want to bring some joy to the people of Mali, who are going through some tough times. That’s what drives us on.”