Asked about Michael Essien, Burkina Faso captain Sounkalo Sanou, who is set for a first taste of action at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2011 in Mexico this Monday, freely admits the Ghana superstar is his inspiration. The 17-year-old Sanou models his behaviour on and off the field on the Chelsea man, praising the midfielder’s talent, elegance and leadership.
Naturally, comparisons between the two would be premature, but they do have one thing very much in common. Just like Sanou, Essien also first appeared on a major footballing stage at the U-17 world finals. Back in 1999, the man who would go on to be Ghana's Player of the Year for 2008 shone for the young Black Stars, although they fell to eventual champions Brazil in the semi-finals.
This summer, a place in the last four would rate as a magnificent achievement for the Burkinabe. “We're thrilled to be here and we're enjoying it," Sanou declared, a matter of hours ahead of the opening clash with newcomers Panama. “But there are no easy opponents. Everyone who's here deserves it. Burkina Faso is very proud of us, and we'll give it our best shot."
The Africans and Panama have been drawn in Group E, along with Ecuador and Germany. “I've not seen these teams yet, but we're strong and respect all our opponents," says Sanou. For all the player's modesty, it should not be forgotten that the Africans are hardly unknowns at this level. It is the fourth time they have contested a FIFA U-17 World Cup, and they finished a commendable third back in 2001. “It would be a dream come true if we could do it again," he adds.
On this occasion, the team coached by Rui Manuel Pereira Vieira arrived at the tournament as reigning African champions. “After we won the African championship, everyone was delighted and we had a huge party," Sanou recalls. The historic triumph was particularly special for him, as the No8 is the team skipper and inspirational leader.
He admits it is not easy being away from his family for such a long period of time, but his parents and his older and younger sister declared their pride as they sent him on his way. That pride would doubtless be doubled or even tripled if he makes a good impression in Mexico and manages to realise his personal dream of a contract with a major club. “There are lots of great teams, but my favourites are Olympique Lyon and Olympique Marseille." Intriguingly enough, Essien made the breakthrough with OL.
Ideally, Sanou would like to continue his development with a major club, and then work his way into his country's senior team. His long-term goal is to represent Burkina Faso at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, or the 2018 edition of the finals in Russia.
A major contributor to the success of the Burkina Faso junior teams is the Kada school in the capital Ouagadougou. Founded in summer 2008 by Jonathan Pitroipa and Wilfried Sanou, the scouts there scour the country's cities for talented newcomers. Just three years later, that effort appears to be paying off, as Sanou is one of six players in the U–17 World Cup squad to come from the school. “It's a great school, and it gives you the chance to grow into a great player," Sanou says.
The likeable youngster still has some way to go before becoming a true great like his role model Essien, but he has clearly taken the first steps in the right direction.