In Guwahati, it's time for Africa
In Guwahati, to paraphrase the song, it's time for Africa.
An All-Africa quarter-final may appear a little too early in a competition that the continent has dominated, producing a finalist in 13 of the last 16 editions of the U-17 World Cup. When Mali take on Ghana in the 2017 quarter-finals, it promises to be an intense physical skirmish, in a rainy Guwahati. Temperatures have dropped but the turf beneath both teams may not be as solid as they would like. Even though Mali are already on six yellow cards and Ghana on five, both teams' reluctance to hold back so far makes it clear that on Saturday, prisoners are not about to be taken.
Here are the stats: Ghana, who had challenged Nigeria's early mark in the U-17 World Cups, are two-time champs, twice losing finalists between 1991 and 1997, with their last presence in the semi-finals ten years ago. In the eight U-17 World Cups from the turn of the century, they have qualified only three times, including in 2017, where they lost the U-17 African Cup of Nations to Mali, who also beat them 2-1 in a recent friendly.
Mali are relative newcomers, turning up at the U-17s only four times in the last two decades before this one, losing the 2015 final to Nigeria. Heading into the clash, both have lost a game each, with Mali scoring 13 goals to Ghana's 7, but conceding five to Ghana's solitary goal conceded during their defeat to USA.
Ghanaian defender Najeeb Yakubu -- soft-spoken but one hell of a quote-giver -- was on the ready. When he and his coach Samuel Fabin were reminded about the two defeats to Mali, his response was silken and sharp. "We are very ready to pay them back. We've corrected our mistakes and are ready to take the match to them." But what about the pressure of having the progress of the team being followed back home? "There's no pressure on us. We are ready to pay them back. People (are) following us, they motivate us."
The thrill of watching African football at any world event has been their ability to topple every heritage-heavy, resource-rich team with speed, skill, and the muscle of their game. This World Cup, their opponents have spoken about the "strength" being a feature that they couldn't match up against. After Mali's 5-1 rout of Iraq, the Iraqi coach grumbled that his team had played what had looked like an U-23 team. His claim was shot down with the defence that he could well have complained earlier rather than when his team was drubbed.
In many ways, Africa's presence on the event as a whole should be a bit of a poke in the ribs for Indian football. Their stories are different but have a common thread.
Ghana have made the knockouts of the senior World Cup, and were always considered their country's foremost sports team. They were given the nickname of the 'Black Stars' by their country's founding father, Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah chose it from the "Black of Star of Africa" shipping line, run by black rights reader Marcus Garvey, that transported black Americans to Africa as part of the Back to Africa movement of the 1920s onward. It is also how the Black Star is found on the Ghanaian national flag and the team jersey.
Niger didn't need to be a host to qualify for the U-17s, knocking out Nigeria from the qualifiers. They reached the knockouts on their tournament debut. The country is more than three-quarter Sahara desert and had to travel to Morocco to prepare for India. The Sahara desert also covers Mali's north, so it is unlikely they have the best grounds or training facilities going around. While Mali have never qualified for the senior World Cup, they have a chance of making their second U-17 semi-final on Saturday.
Regardless of terrain or finances or slick infrastructure, Africa is, after South America, the biggest export market for footballers around the world. A rough count on the Transfermarkt website shows that Ghanaian players feature across leagues in 89 countries and Mali in 58. At one point, it was said there were no less than ten players from Mali in the Premier League.
Mali coach Jonas Komla also pointed out proudly that two players from Mali featured in the Europa League on Thursday night - Amadou Haidara and Diadie Samassékou of Red Bull Salzburg. When asked what was it that had given Mali such a large presence in the European leagues, Komla put it down to "continuity."
"As compared to India we have continuity in the work standards," he says. "If you go in all the corners of Mali, you will see the maturity of players who start when they are very young. They start taking up the ball at a young age, they acquire more knowledge of playing in matches as they go along. By the time they are under-15, under-17, under-20, they can move onto higher levels. From there they can acquire so much of quality and skills in Europe."
A few members of his U-17 team were part of the senior team at a qualifier against Ivory Coast. "There was a mixing of skills and help from the senior team. It helped for the continuity of the work." This is at its most fundamental level, the very software - teaching skills, training methods, a non-stop supply of game-time - needed to produce a conveyor belt of football players who find their way to Europe.
It is not that Mali and Ghana run their football like multinational corporations. In March this year, FIFA banned the Mali Football Association for a month after the sports minister had scrapped the Association's executive committee. Had the ban not been lifted Mali wouldn't have been in India, never mind the quarter-final. Ghanaian football has been hit by a match-fixing scandal over clubs bribing referees.
And yet, it is their football players and their national teams that make a mark around the world. When Ghana and Mali meet on Saturday, Indian football can see how far and where it needs to go -- beyond lovely stadia and this big event.