There are few nations which have faced bigger hurdles than Burkina Faso in preparing to do battle with the cream of the world's best young talent. With a new coach, limited preparation and a host of players not considered for selection following MRI testing, the Young Etalons' ranks were recently boosted by a youngster that has faced his own challenges. Two months ago Bertrand Traore had yet to taste international football, but now he has carved out a small slice of history with the 14-year-old midfielder the youngest player at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Traore's life changed direction at the end of August, when he showed up at a selection camp hastily convened by new coach Rainer Willfeld. For Traore, a willowy wide midfielder, the nature of selection in the national team was as unexpected as it was unusual. A 900 kilometre round-trip from his home city of Bobo-Dioulasso, to the gloriously named Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou, paid off handsomely for the youngster who was immediately included in the squad despite his tender years. "I was not expecting to be involved in international football this year, so it is very exciting," said the humble and shy youngster who has a silky left foot but is capable on either flank.
Despite the hardships faced by Willfeld's young team, Burkina Faso have given a more than adequate account of themselves to date at Nigeria 2009. Burkina Faso lost their opener to an experienced and classy Turkey side that was forced to rely on a third-minute goal to get clear of the west Africans. While Turkey had the better of the match overall, the Burkinabe attacked their opponents at every opportunity.
Next up was New Zealand in a remarkable match that started in extreme heat and humidity and concluded over three hours later on a sodden pitch, with the match having been halted after the heavens opened in Enugu. A goal to the good and dominating in every facet of the game, the change in conditions gave New Zealand a lifeline which they grabbed with both hands to record a 1-1 draw, however the shot tally which registered 28-2 in favour of the Burkinabe told the story. Traore started in both matches and did not look out of place displaying some exquisite control and passing.
Despite the disrupted lead-in, some will inevitably compare the side to the class of 2001 when the Burkinabe stunned onlookers with a run to the semi-finals. For now though the Young Burkinabe face a winner-takes-all clash against Costa Rica with the victor to claim second in Group D, provided New Zealand fail to overcome group winners Turkey. "Against Costa Rica we will try to do much more than we have done in our two games so far," said Traore before adding "we will win," more with youthful bravado than with over-confidence.
In the veins
Starting out in a team formed by his mother, Traore has essentially played football from the time he could walk, invariably against older children helping to expedite his football development. There is fine footballing stock in the family with 20-year-old elder brother Alain having now been on the books of Auxerre for three years.
Though he has travelled internationally with football before, the youngest player at Nigeria 2009 says he is thoroughly enjoying his time at the tournament. The Burkinabe have enjoyed good support from a noisy and passionate Enugu crowd in their two matches to date. "The Nigerian public have been good to us and been very supportive which helps a lot," says Bertrand. The Young Etalons have also received many messages of support and encouragement from back home, including from senior national team players.
Burkina Faso's German coach Willfeld is emphatic when asked of the youngster's chances to follow his brother's footsteps into the professional game. "He could become a very great player because he can do everything with the ball, he has a good eye, he can play good passes, he has control, he has everything," he says. "What he is lacking is physical ability to compete with bigger players in a one-on-one situation. He can reach any level if he comes into good coaching, people who will look after him correctly and not make him a big player before he is a big player, then I think he can play at any level within five years."
For now though there is the matter at hand of beating Costa Rica, but what about his long-term goals? Traore is unequivocal with his answer: "To become a professional footballer." It is no doubt a dream for most young football fans but the assured response speaks volumes about a steely determination. Selection in the national team has already been an achievement in itself for a young man of such tender age, but it seems likely there is far more to come for this raw diamond.