Ambitious Mali looking to replicate 2019 FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup success
BAMAKO (Mali) – Two years ago, Mali wrote one of the most beautiful chapters of African basketball when they reached the Finals of the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in the Greek island of Crete.
Though Mali lost to the USA, they broke through a glass ceiling by becoming the first African nation to reach Championship Game.
With the 2021 edition of the tournament scheduled to take place from July 3-11, 2021 in the Latvian cities of Riga and Daugavpils, Mali head coach Alhadji Dicko recalls that self-belief was key for the West African success two years ago and he and his peers look to capitalize on that historic event.
"WE'RE NOT GOING TO BE OVERAMBITIOUS. BUT WE'RE REALLY EAGER TO BRING THE TROPHY THIS TIME. TWO YEARS AGO, THE USA GOT THE BETTER OF US. NOW IS TIME TO SHOW THAT WE CAN AT LEAST REPEAT WHAT WE DID IN GREECE [IN 2019]."
Mali will once again compete again the other countries in a bid to conquer the title this time.
This time, they will have one line added to their record. And they will at least try to finish on the same note.
Dicko reflects on what is coming next. "We're not going to be overambitious. But we're really eager to bring back the trophy this time. Two years ago, USA got the better of us. Now is time to show that we can at least repeat what we did in Greece," he said to FIBA.basketball.
Back in 2019, things went on as planned, even though the Malians were considered as underdogs on Greek soil.
But game after game, they proved that they belonged among the world's best.
"Before getting there, we chose not to listen to people who didn't think we'd make it. We entered a bubble, and the technical staff and myself built a team," he said.
Head Coach Alhadji Dicko led Mali all the way to world recognition
"It's not just something that sprung during the tournament. It's a belief that we built since we became U18 African champions in 2018, in Bamako. I was deeply convinced that we could cause some upsets along the way. And I'm quite proud of what we achieved, as we lived up to our goals."
That was indeed one tough final for the Malians, as they overcame rivals Senegal in an epic battle for the African title, with only two points between the two teams. Since then they began the long way to world recognition.
In Greece, the Group Phase saw Mali off to a cruising against Latvia (93-79), before shocking reigning world champions Canada (71-70) in what was one of the tournament's major upsets. But they suffered a halt by Australia, while they qualified for the Round of 16.
New Zealand, Puerto Rico and France were next and no match as Siriman Kanoute and his team mates went on, showcasing their talent to the world.
"This is what it was about: we had Mali's flag flying high, and we were bearing the hopes of a whole continent," adds Dicko.
But the USA proved to be more realistic in the Final’s money time, putting an end to the Malian dream of becoming the first-ever African squad to lift the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup trophy.
"It was a series of decisions that cost us the game. Do I regret my choices? Somehow. I shoulder the responsibility for this defeat, as I know we could have brought the trophy home. But I'm also proud because we opened up the way for the rest of Africa."
But satisfaction emerged on that day, as Siriman Kanoute and Oumar Ballo made it to the tournament's All-Star Five, alongside MVP Reggie Perry and Tyler Haliburton, both from USA, and French Joel Ayayi.
"It did not come as a surprise. I mean, these two have been named to the All-Star Five on two previous tournaments. It's the sign that hard work pays off, and that they must never stop working on their goals," reminds the head coach.
This resulted in young Kanoute being called to the senior national team one year later for the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers in Kigali, after Ibrahim Djambo urged the Malian Federation to call in the youngsters that were part of the U19 squad.
But, according to Dicko, Mali's wonderkid was not the only one who got received the call.
"Unfortunately, they couldn't all make it, due to school. But I'm glad to see that the Malian Federation is following their plans of installing a new dynamics for basketball."
Siriman Kanoute and Oumar Ballo earned recognition by making it to the tournament's All Star Five
All in all, the way to a second place at the FIBA U19 World Cup showed that Africa can be a fertile soil for talent.
The likes of Siriman Kanoute, Oumar Ballo, or even Hassan Drame were part of a well-serviced machinery. "It's all about being physically prepared, and being homogeneous," says Dicko, adding: "We had twelve players who could get in the game at any time. And now, it's time to show that African players have nothing to lose when playing at this level. Seeing that so many of them are playing around the world only confirms that we have the talent and whatever else it takes to make it to the top."