Brazil, Mali look to savour last dance in India
Brazil will be in action at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on the last day of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, potentially in front of a capacity crowd that has embraced them as their own.
There is a small plot twist though, which will disappoint coach Carlos Amadeu's team just as much as it will the football-city they have entertained over the last one week: It is a third-place playoff -- the starter before the main course, in a manner of speaking -- only the third such in eight semi-final appearances for the three-time champions, but Amadeu is not going to treat this match lightly, especially after all that his team has been through over the last three weeks in India.
"The level of this competition was very high. You had many teams that could have won the championship -- France, Spain, Germany, England, Mali, Ghana, Paraguay, Brazil, U.S. or even Mexico, who I thought would do better," Amadeu said.
"There were 24 teams here and so many good nations that couldn't make it this far, and to be in the top four of that is really satisfying. We had a chance to play the final, but now we have to fight for third place."
In their way stand 2015 runners-up Mali,one of the biggest attacking threats at this tournament. Mali's 157 shots are 52 better than their nearest competitor in finalists Spain, while only the other finalists England have scored more goals than the 16 managed by the African champions.
Head coach Jonas Komla lavished praise on his semi-final opponents Spain, saying they deserved their win despite having a goal controversially disallowed. He also spoke of the need to bring African football on par with Europe in terms of resources.
"At age-group levels, our players tend to have greater strength and energy. Africa has always given more importance to younger players. They have been successful at this level too. When the U-17 and U-20 players leave for bigger clubs in Europe, then they play under different mentalities and philosophies," Komla said. "In Africa, we have talent, but we don't have the same resources as European countries to go forward."
Amadeu said the technical staff had to take the onus of motivating the team for the third-place playoff, and they realised it soon after the semi-final loss.
"Immediately after the match, the technical staff and I had a meeting and we said that we had to pick ourselves up. The players will be watching us as the leaders. That's how we are looking at this," he said.
"We are recovering and we will have to see who is fit. But if the fitness of the players holds up, we would like to play to our full potential. Mali have shown that they are a strong, physical team -- they try to shoot from outside the box and they can be very good, as they proved when they won the African championship."
Mali midfielder Salam Jiddou confessed he likes Brazil as a football nation, but said he and his team would be putting in every effort to finish with their campaign with a win, even if most of Kolkata roots for Brazil.
"The crowd matters, but we will concentrate on the match and the pitch," he said.
"In Africa, most of our players play for clubs and we get similar crowds, so that experience is nothing new for us. We just have to play our own game. The motivation is personal, because we lost [the semi-final]. If we finish third, it will be a huge honour for the country to get on the podium," Komla said.
For striker Lassana N'Diaye, the chance of adding to his six goals in the competition and breathing down the neck of top-scorer Rhian Brewster should act as added motivation, and the fact that both the continental champions are getting to stay the full course of an U-17 World Cup could be the biggest benefit for both countries in the long run.
"We have really enjoyed playing here and when watching some of the games, you wouldn't have been able to say that these players were all U-17," Amadeu said. "We are playing seven games, and while we would have preferred being in the final, we can't forget that we are working with a development team. Playing seven games is better than playing four or five.
"This young team has to understand the responsibility of entering the pitch [wearing the Brazil jersey]. We will never play that down, and that's what we will do tomorrow."