Mali didn't win merely a football match in Guwahati on a sodden Saturday evening -- they reached into their sturdiest core, amplified their strengths and went on to master conditions and opposition on a pudding of a pitch. In what looked like diabolical pitch on which to play a World Cup match, a 2-1 victory over Ghana has taken Mali into their second straight semi-final of the U-17 World Cup.
The rain had beaten down on Guwahati all through the day and when the match began it was to beat up the Indira Gandhi Stadium pitch. The ball stopped, the players slipped, their movements miscued, their timing skewed. It is where Mali took to the field (this cliché somehow fits) like fish to water. In a tournament where the football has often been pretty and very often technically perfect, Guwahati was a skirmish, a mud fight and the Malians were up to it.
The Ghanaians were taking their time to get used to the pitch, which was soaking in the rain like a sponge. Their familiar tactic of using the long ball and dominating in the air had been studied and then hijacked by the Malians on Saturday. Mali were to harangue Ghanaian goalkeeper Danlad Ibrahim - 15 only in December and the youngest player in the tournament - right from the start, with two attempts on goal coming in the first ten minutes.
The first goal was scored in the 15th minute - Ibrahim getting beaten at his near-post by Hadji Drame's right footed shot - and it took another 45 minutes before the next. Young Ibrahim had a horrible day in horrible conditions, coming off his line in the 61st minute and stumbling into a poor clearance, which was pounced upon by the magnificently-named Djemoussa Traore. One of the smallest players on the pitch brushing 5ft, Traore was hared up and down the wing, beating his makers on pace, with his smaller turning radius, assisted by the ball plopping on the pitch.
Ghana scored from the penalty spot 2-1 soon afterward, but the usually porous Mali defence held firm, no doubt helped by the adhesive ground around their goal.
Ghana also had a goal disallowed in the first half due to a foul committed on a Malian defender in the lead-up. "I don't talk about officiating but I will have to complain - we got a definite equaliser but if the goal had stood, it would have changed the course of the game," Ghana coach Sameul Fabin said after the game. He added that "the very bad second goal" killed his team off.
Mali coach Jonas Komla, benevolent, kindly, said his team had been ready. They had practiced in the rain on Friday, were used to playing in wet conditions by and large and their friendlies in Ethiopia had been similar. "Our players are well conditioned for these kinds of matches. (We) modified our strategies and tried to ensure that our head stayed on our shoulders."
This is Mali's third straight win over Ghana and a word their players often use is "mentality," which could translate to mindset or mental approach. If anything, Mali know how to find that approach that will win the day. Midfielder Salam Jiddou said that he had played in games as "difficult" as the U-17 quarterfinal and they were mentally prepared to take the punishment. "It wasn't easy but I am accustomed to it... it rains a lot in Mali."
Even on a pitch as terrible as the one they had to play on Saturday night. The field had taken in so much water that it had slowed down to a trundle, every player requiring to adjust the muscle memory of his legs to consciously adjusting his control on the ball and the pace or power they were able to generate off it. The water on the field meant that the power put on the ball by 17-year-old legs had it going over distance usually covered by seven year olds. The start-stop-swerve-twist game meant hell on the ankles and the knees and the frequent contorting of torsos.
"The workload is simply much heavier and it is more tiring. You have to be physically ready for it," Jiddou said. "It is normal for your body to be more tired than usual."
If the body wasn't so utterly punished, he said, "It meant you didn't play a good game."
Maybe that's what football people mean when they talk about "mentality." Jiddou and Mali had it in spades. When asked whether he thought Mali could win this world cup, the idea first had a smile stretch across his face. Then he said, "Yes, of course. Why not? When you participate in a World Cup obviously you want to win it. Our first objective is to win in the semi-final, to reach the final. And once you reach the final, it's not about playing, but about winning. Winning it."