Stallions set high standard
© AFP

Honesty and togetherness are the watchwords of the Burkina Faso team. The Stallions boast a strong collective spirit, pride in the jersey and a shared ambition: "To reciprocate the love that our fans have for us. We are a poor country and the only way we players can help is by making people feel proud and happy."

The words are those of Burkina Faso captain Mahamoudou Kere, or Badou as he is known to his friends. Although he and his team-mates barely put a foot wrong in advancing from the second phase of the Africa Zone qualifying competition for South Africa 2010, they are still ranked as outsiders as they prepare for the third and final phase, which begins with a home match against Guinea on 28 March.

"We need to raise our game. All the teams in our group are strong," says the central defender, who plays his club football for RCS Charleroi in Belgium. Even so, confidence is high in the Burkinabe camp after collecting five wins and a draw (against Tunisia) in the previous round.

Still without a major trophy to their name, the Stallions' most notable achievement to date was a run to the semi-finals at the 1998 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, played on home soil. And, having never reached the FIFA World Cup™ finals before, Burkina Faso firmly believe they will have a big part to play in a section that also features Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Malawi, recent winners over Egypt.

"You can never take anything for granted in football, but given the talent we've got I honestly believe we can do something big," predicts Kere, the leader of a defensive unit that conceded only five goals in six second-phase matches.

The Mourinho touch
A former pupil of one Jose Mourinho, Paulo Duarte took over as coach in 2007 and has since instilled his side with the spirit of the Three Musketeers' famous motto: 'All for one and one for all'. "We've all contributed to creating a winning blend," continues Kere. "Everyone's a leader and that is what makes us strong. I might be the captain but that's only because I'm one of the older players. I'm no more important than any of the others."

"I am very proud of this team already, but we are not thinking of South Africa yet. We'll be taking each match as it comes, and we'll just have to wait and see. Even so, I hope this is the start of a wonderful adventure."

Everyone's a leader and that is what makes us strong. I might be the captain but that's only because I'm one of the older players.
Burkina Faso captain Mahamoudou Kere

Kere's modesty aside, the strength of Duarte's squad lies in its experience, with the Portuguese coach relying on a core of seasoned campaigners, while making more sparing use of a clutch of rising talents. Formed by Charles Kabore, Daouda Diakite, Jonathan Pitroipa, Moumouni Dagano, Paul Koulibaly, Saidou Panandetiguiri, Mamadou Tall and captain Kere, every member of this solid nucleus plays abroad and has had a taste of top-flight European football. And in the eyes of the Charleroi centre-half, it is this international know-how that has enabled the Stallions to excel.

"Charles is at Olympique Marseille, Jonathan at Hamburg, Saidou in Germany and Moumouni has played in Ligue 1," he explains. "They have all acquired valuable experience and that's what makes the difference. We haven't achieved results like these for a long time and that says it all to me."

The start of something?
"The coach has managed to bring all these gifted youngsters together," adds Kere, underlining the vital role played by Duarte. "He's brought order and discipline, which is important, and he's the link between us and the FA, which has also been vital. He's forged a real team here. There are maybe four or five players who stand out above the rest, but we are not Cameroon or Côte d'Ivoire, and we are nothing without team spirit."

Badou and his colleagues take on Didier Drogba's Elephants at home on 20 June. By the time that crunch clash comes around, however, Burkina Faso will have already played Guinea at home and Malawi away.

Six points from those two games would stand the Stallions in good stead for their duel with the Ivorians, not that Kere is looking that far ahead. "I am very proud of this team already, but we are not thinking of South Africa yet. We'll be taking each match as it comes, and we'll just have to wait and see. Even so, I hope this is the start of a wonderful adventure."