FIFA U-17 World Cup: Ghana vs Mali clash dominated by battle of ‘odd’ jerseys
Ghana will square off against Mali in the quarter-final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup and both teams will be eyeing a hat-trick of wins but the contest is being dominated by players not sporting a number associated with the best in football.fifa u17 world cup 2017 Updated: Oct 20, 2017 17:09 IST
The polestars of soccer teams usually wear jersey number 10 or 9. Ask Pele, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane, or Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Gerd Muller and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
But the spotlight of the quarterfinal between two-time champions Ghana and Mali is on two jerseys sporting numbers usually not associated with the best in the business.
Ghana expects captain and striker Eric Ayiah to carry on the kind of form that saw him net two goals against India in the group states and convert a penalty against Niger in the pre-quarters. Ayiah wears 6 on his back.
The number isn’t just lucky for the 17-year-old. It keeps him associated with a date associated with his existence as well as his country on Africa’s western coast.
“My birthday is same as my country’s independence day – March 6. This is the reason why I have never opted for any other number since I started playing,” he said ahead of the knockout match that would leave one African team in contention for the title.
Ayiah was the second highest goal scorer in the U-17 Africa Cup of Nations, but the Cristiano Ronaldo fan was off target when it mattered most – the final of the tournament less than six months ago.
That final in Gabon saw midfielder Mamadou Samake – Mali’s jersey number 17 – steal the limelight with a 22nd minute goal that denied a third Cup of Nations title for Ghana.
Samake has not had a goal to his name in this tournament, but he has had a hand in most of the 13 goals Mali has scored so far. He has been a constant in the Mali playing XI, and his presence is likely to remind Ghana of the six-month-old wound.
Ghana had won the inaugural African U-17 tournament in 1995 and again in 1999. That was Ghana’s best soccer decade with the U-17 team having lifted the World Cup in 1991 and 1995.
Several players of that decade went on to be stars in Europe. They include Michael Essien who played for Chelsea and Real Madrid, Stephen Appiah (Juventus) and Samuel Kuffour (Bayern Munich).
Ghana coach Samuel Kwasi Fabin believes his team has the talent to win their third U-17 World Cup. “The Cup of Nations defeat is behind us. We will be out to show we are the best,” he said.
His Mali counterpart Jonas Kokou Komla is equally confident of a good show to make India the stage for an “African hat-trick”.
If either Mali or Ghana go on to become champions, it will be three in a row for Africa. Nigeria had beaten Mexico 3-0 to win their maiden title in 2013 and retained it in 2015 by defeating Mali 2-0.
“Mali could not cross the last hurdle two years ago but our team brought joy to Malians by winning the African championships earlier this year. There is no reason why we cannot make our people happy again,” said striker and captain Seme Camara, Mali’s number 9.
Mali did not have the best start in Group B. They lost to Paraguay 3-2 but won their next two matches against Turkey (3-0) and New Zealand (3-1) before thrashing Iraq 5-1 in the Group of 16.
Ghana topped Group A with wins against Colombia (1-0) and (India 4-0) sandwiched between a 0-1 defeat to USA. The Africans beat Niger from the same continent 2-0 in the pre-quarterfinal.