The Mali Story
Free to read: How a golden dynasty was built in West Africa - and where it goes next.
As a footballer, Jean-Marc Guillou’s career was illustrious. The Frenchman racked up 19 international caps including an appearance at the 1978 World Cup and made more than 500 senior appearances at club level.
But as a manager, Guillou’s legacy is even greater. His career post-retirement helped develop one of the greatest managers in modern football - Arsène Wenger - but even more profoundly, established a rich and forward-thinking footballing culture in two different nations.
This is the story of the man, the academy and the coaches who changed African football forever - twice.
Guillou first ventured into management in 1983, taking the reins at Cannes. He sought out a fresh-faced Wenger, yet to receive a career break, to be his assistant manager.
Guillou’s time at Cannes was far from a resounding success. He failed to guide the club back to the French top flight and only spent two years there. Wenger, meanwhile, left the partnership after one year to join Nancy. But in the twelve months they spent together the compatriots developed a bond which endured for decades.
After leaving Cannes in 1985, Guillou briefly coached in Switzerland, before making a pioneering plunge.
In France, Guillou witnessed the exciting influx of African footballers trailblazing through the country during the 1970s and 80s. At the time, European football still largely scoffed at the idea of African footballers with prejudiced and racist ideals. But those views were starting to shift, and Guillou was among the few who recognised the enormous potential and talent abundant in Africa.
When he left Switzerland’s Servette in 1986, Guillou essentially ended his career in senior football management. Instead, he travelled to Ivory Coast, and began building a new footballing project – his own academy.
Guillou spent six years raising the foundations of Academié JMG – the acronym being his initials. He established playing pitches, built a school in the country’s capital, Abidjan, and then spent years traveling across the country to find the best burgeoning talent.
All that hard work would pay its rewards. JMG soon birthed an exciting golden generation of Ivorian talent. It was under Guillou’s guidance that the likes of Didier Zokora, Emmanuel Eboué, Kolo and Yaya Touré, Gervinho, Salomon Kalou, and many more learned their trade.
When Ivory Coast qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 2006, 80% of the country’s squad consisted of JMG graduates.
Guillou’s enormous success produced one of the best African sides to ever grace the continent. But as the years wore on, he became dissatisfied with the Ivory Coast Football Federation. In Guillou’s eyes the federation had failed to harness the true potential of the team JMG had built. Guillou was not alone; it’s common consensus Ivory Coast’s golden generation never delivered the kind of success that was expected of them, and many at JMG blame the association’s poor management.
“I feel that the federation of Ivory Coast could have managed the group better. This team should not have won just one Africa Cup of Nations, it could have been two or three,” JMG’s academy administrator, Mamadou Wad, told me.
Which is why, in 2008, Guillou embarked on a new chapter.
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Guillou relocated to Bamako, Mali. Establishing his base in the country’s capital, Guillou implemented everything he had once built in Abidjan. But this time Guillou also concentrated on developing close relations with the Malian Football Federation, to quiet the ghosts of prior failures.
Since Guillou’s arrival in Mali, he has delivered routinely astonishing results. JMG has become the country’s top academy, producing countless players for the national team, and his top stars have gone onto play in Europe’s top five leagues: including Yves Bissouma, Amadou Haidara and Cheick Doucouré.
In the last few years, Mali’s various sides have started to perform in youth tournaments. In 2015, their U-17 team reached the World Cup final for the first time. Later that year the U-20 team finished third at the World Cup. In 2015 Mali’s U-17 side won the AFCON, and repeated that feat in 2017. The U-20 side won AFCON in 2019 and most recently, Mali’s U-17 team finished in third place at the U-17 World Cup in November after a delightfully expressive showing.
That’s quite a track record, but it was engineered to be a beginning, not an end. The extraordinary youth talent is starting to bleed into the senior team, and expectation has settled over the side.
With the 2023 AFCON finally underway, Mali are optimistic of their status as a dark horse. But further ahead, the country is in a solid position to earn automatic qualification to the World Cup in 2026 for the first time in its history.
If Mali manage to accomplish that long-sought qualification, it will mean Guillou’s work has written unprecedented footballing history in two different countries. That begs the question: what is the Frenchman’s secret?
Guillou’s methods are innovative. Many have caught the attention of the coaching community over the years. One of the most inventive - and abstract - ideas is that his players play barefoot, even against opponents wearing football boots.
This concept comes from Guillou’s assertion that Brazil produces the best players because aspiring youngsters play barefoot on the beaches, which leads to mastery of technique and ball control.
And so, Guillou’s proteges must do the same. The youngsters at JMG have to ‘earn’ their football boots and play most of their years in the academy barefoot.
“His [Guillou’s] philosophy is that first and foremost the ball must be a player’s friend. It must become as natural to his players as using their left and right legs when they move,” Wad explains.
Guillou also places a lot of emphasis on technical mastery, with plenty of drills and time dedicated to technique and ball control - largely inspired by the work of La Masia. JMG players are instructed to read the game well, and play a passing style similar to the tiki-taka of early Pep Guardiola.
Guillou’s players live in the academy from a young age, and alongside attending school they go through a vigorous training regime, with the opportunity to work outside of training hours to practise and hone their craft.
“Guillou doesn’t believe in just running and running. For him the football player has to play with the ball before anything else,” Wad explains.
Aside from his principals and training methods concentrated on ball work, Guillou also has an excellent eye for talent. The Frenchman doesn’t just train his young stars; he spots them at trials JMG host around the country.
“The coach [Guillou] says he makes his spirit empty before watching. He doesn’t go to trials with any ideas. When he watches a player, he always tries to see what his ‘special quality’ is. This is something specific that he cannot find with another player – that can be physical, mental or technical quality.”
If the player has the special quality Guillou seeks, he brings them to the academy. There, JMG integrates them and searches for a way to slowly draw the quality out.
Through hours of work on the pitch, Guillou and JMG usually succeed.
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Jean-Marc Guillou is now 78. But his work in Bamako, Mali’s capital, continues apace. Many of his senior protégés are now at the best clubs in European football, and more will follow suit.
In Red Bull Salzburg’s recent 3-2 victory in the Austrian Bundesliga over Hartberg, the winning goal was scored by Nene Dorgeles. He was assisted by Daouda Guindo. Both are graduates of JMG.
I think Nene and Daouda will become very important for Salzburg,” Wad says. “The two players are very close, inside and outside the field. We expect many good things with those two young players and hope it is now the moment they will take place within the team.”
At the recent U-17 World Cup, the Silver Ball - awarded to the second-best player at the tournament - was bestowed upon JMG graduate, Hamidou Makalou (for what it’s worth, he won our Golden Ball, read more below).
The exciting 17-year-old dazzled at the tournament, scoring and assisting in a 3-0 victory over Argentina in the Bronze medal match alone. He is not short of suitors; one Premier League club had already invited him on trial before his World Cup heroics, and it would not be a surprise if the floodgates had opened since.
Makalou is not alone. Sékou Koné, who made the most interceptions (48) at the tournament and also won the most defensive duels (47) among his positional peers, is attracting the interest of Red Bull Salzburg: a well-trodden path for JMG graduates since Diadie Samassékou first walked it in 2015. A source confirms to us that Gaoussou Diakité, a teenage forward and JMG graduate, is also set to join Salzburg this winter.
Of Koné and Makalou, Wad says: “They have different profiles from their elders and they are still very young. But regarding their talent and their room for improvement, they could surely increase and reach in few years the level of Bissouma, Haidara and Doucouré.”
Beyond individual success stories, Guillou’s innovative work has transformed the footballing landscape in Mali. JMG has inspired a host of imitators among Malian academies and the added competition will only be to the benefit of Malian football as a whole.
In the recent U-17 squad, that was evident: JMG academy products were complimented by standout performances from other academy’s graduates, including the likes of Ibrahim Diarra, who made nine goal contributions in seven games at the tournament, and Mamadou Doumbia, who scored four goals in four games.
It’s clear the foundations are stronger in Mali than they were in Ivory Coast. JMG continue to work closely with the Malian Football Federation, and implement nationwide changes to the country’s football programmes and coaching.
“We are trying to work closely with the federation,” Wad says. “We don’t want to make the same error as we did in Ivory Coast.”
This time, JMG’s ambitions are even greater. The academy doesn’t just want to establish a golden generation - they want to build a golden Malian dynasty to span decades.
“I am convinced we will have the same success as we did in Ivory Coast if not even better. I think Mali could be one of the best teams in Africa for the next 15 years,” Wad concludes.
It all starts now, at AFCON 2023. The hosts? Ivory Coast.
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