The only time Burkina Faso managed to escape the group phase of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals was in 1998, when they hosted the competition and finished fourth. On Sunday, the Stallions will be playing for the title after causing yet another sensation by beating fancied Ghana on penalties. Coach Paul Put tells FIFA.com that he always believed in his team.
Going into the 29th finals of the showcase event of African football, very few people would have had Burkina Faso on their list of pre-tournament favourites. Drawn into a tough group with defending champions Zambia, as well as two-time African champions Nigeria, the Stallions were widely expected to compete with Ethiopia for a third place finish in the group. "But I always thought that we were a big team and could go all the way," said coach Put.
The Belgian took over Burkina Faso in March 2012, after the Stallions were knocked out of the previous AFCON finals in the first round following defeats against Côte d'Ivoire, Sudan and Angola. "Going into the finals in South Africa I told my players that they had to believe in themselves and that they could go far. I am very happy, first of all for the players because they have been working very hard and deserve the success. They have been together for over a month as a family and there have never been any problems. I told the players we had to continue as we have been, and if we do that, we will play the final. Now they have done it, and I am very glad for everybody in Burkina Faso,” said the Belgian.
The 56-year-old did admit that the match against the Black Stars, who had taken over the mantle of favourites after the Ivorians were knocked out by Nigeria, had been very tough. Wakaso Mubarak gave Ghana an early lead from the penalty spot, but Aristide Bance managed to level matters on the hour. The striker, who plays his club football for Augsburg in the German Bundesliga, had several chances to break the deadlock, but failed to score. The game then went into a penalty shoot-out, and three Ghanaian misses saw the Stallions through.
Put said the key was convincing his relatively inexperienced side that they belonged on the same pitch with the four-time African champions and that no result was a foregone conclusion. "I told the players before the match that even though they were playing against Ghana they did not have to be afraid. I told them that they could go for the victory. The whole team was talking about things before the game, and I was motivating the players. I think all the talking worked well. I think we deserved the win and deserved to go through to the final."
Tactics help make the difference
Put started his coaching career with Belgian clubs Lokeren and Lierse. He then moved on to Gambia, where he was in charge of the Scorpions for four years before being sacked after the side failed to qualify for the 2012 AFCON finals. On Wednesday, he had his team lined up perfectly to combat the more talented Black Stars. “Tactically we played a very good game. Our players are very offensive, and I told them that they should stay in position. I knew that we would receive space between defence and midfield, and they should then play diagonal balls, opening up the game. This is what happened, and we could have won the game in normal time already.”
The Belgian said he was now looking forward to taking on the Super Eagles in Sunday's final. "They are a big team and people will expect them to win. But we are also a big team, and we will have our chances." The Burkinabe will have to beat Nigeria without the services of midfielder Jonathan Pitroipa, who has been outstanding throughout the competition. The Rennes player was controversially sent-off in the second half of extra-time after receiving a second yellow card for simulation. "I think there was certainly contact and hopefully CAF will look at the incident and reverse the booking. Pitroipa is a very important player for Burkina Faso."
Charles Kabore, who is one of the most experienced players in the squad, said that they had their coach to thank for their success. "When we arrived in this competition the only person who believed in us was the coach, and he gave us our belief. The whole team is now hoping that Pitroipa can play in the final," the Marseille midfielder said.
Should Pitroipa remain suspended for the final, Wilfried Sanou could take his place. The midfielder, who plays for Kyoto Sanga in Japan, is one of several players who has already performed on the world stage, having been in the Burkina Faso squad in 2001 at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Trinidad & Tobago. Put is hoping that he will be able to extend the list of players with global experience by securing victory against Nigeria on Sunday, thereby booking the final place in this years FIFA Confederations Cup, where the African champions will face Spain, Uruguay and rookies Tahiti.