New Delhi, Oct 24 (IANS) Mali have created a buzz by reaching the semi-finals of the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Although Mali have been a force to reckon with in African football over the last few decades, many among the crowd cheering for their exciting, attacking style of play in stadiums across India may have never even heard of the country before the start of the current tournament.
A poor, landlocked, war ravaged country with a population roughly equivalent to the Delhi NCR region, Mali have braved all odds to emerge as one of the football giants in West Africa.
About half the population of Mali lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day.
Mali became embroiled in a bitter internal conflict when fighting started between government forces and Tuareg rebels in the northern part of the country in January 2012.
The rebels took control of most of the north by April of that year and declared a new state named Azawad. Fighting continued over the next few months before joint operations by the Mali and French armed forces recaptured most of the north by early 2013.
But despite internal upheavals and resultant blows to the economy, Mali continues to take great strides on the football field.
Having achieved independence from France in 1960, Mali made their international debut in a 4-3 win over the Central African Republic on April 13 that year.
They quickly established themselves as one of the top footballing nations in the continent, reaching the African Nations Cup final in 1972 where they lost 3-2 to Congo.
That was followed by a lengthy period of poor results and they did not qualify for the continental championship again until 1994 when they reached the semi-finals.
Mali reached the last four stage of the African Nations Cup again in 2002, 2004 and 2012.
The Mali U-23 team qualified for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. They reached the quarter-finals of the Olympic tournament before losing to Italy.
Although Mali are yet to qualify for the senior World Cup, they have been impressive at the age group levels.
They have won the CAF U-17 Africa Cup of Nations in 2015 and 2017 thus becoming the first nation to clinch back to back titles at that competition. Mali also reached the final in 1997 where they lost 1-0 to Egypt.
Mali have qualified three times for the FIFA U-17 World Cup. Their best performance at that tournament was at the last edition in 2015 when they finished runners-up to Nigeria.
Having qualified as the champions of Africa, they topped Group D and went on to beat North Korea, Croatia and Belgium in the knockout stages before losing 0-2 to Nigeria in the final.
They qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup for the first time in 1997 where they lost to Germany in the quarter-finals.
They had battled the European giants to a 0-0 draw in regulation time before the Germans prevailed 4-3 in the penalty shootout.
Mali had a forgettable campaign at the 1999 edition when they finished at the bottom of Group C.
They reached the quarter-finals once again in 2001 where they lost 2-1 to South American giants Argentina.