Though relatively little fanfare heralded Paulo Jorge Rebelo Duarte's arrival at French Ligue 1 outfit Le Mans, shrewd observers of the game were well aware that the up-and-coming coach has a reputation as a worker of minor miracles.
The Portuguese's stock has risen markedly since taking the helm of the Burkina Faso national team in March 2008. In nine qualifying encounters on the road to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the Burkinabés have won seven, drawn one and lost just once, while in ten-goal Moumouni Dagano they have the second-highest overall scorer in the preliminary competition.
One of the main reasons Duarte accepted the Le Mans post in the face of more lucrative offers, notably from Gulf sides, was the fact the club agreed to allow him to continue his work with Les Etalons alongside his new role. "I don't want to talk about Burkina too much because I'm in the middle of preparing for an important match with Le Mans," the former central defender told FIFA.com.
"But there's a lot of fuss about nothing as regards this dual role. The two jobs are quite different. At the end of the day, I'm just doing what my players do: I go off on national-team duty for a week or ten days per month, then I come back to my club."
The new Mourinho?
That is a typically forthright response from a man whose coaching ability, good looks, language skills and media savvy have already drawn comparisons with compatriot Jose Mourinho. And in an intriguing quirk of fate, the latter's first head coaching position also came at Portuguese side Uniao Leiria, captained at the time by Duarte. Mourinho has since said that "Paulo was one of the most important and influential players during my time there".
Duarte added: "I was hugely fortunate to have played under him. He revolutionised the profession in Portugal. He was a huge inspiration to me, as was Jorge Jesus, who's currently at Benfica, and Manuel Jose, now the Angola coach. Thanks to these three coaches, I'm a much more rounded individual."
Though his playing career was of the journeyman variety, Duarte's progress has been much more rapid since his switch to the dugout in 2004. After starting out as assistant coach before taking the top job at Leiria, he wasted little time in repaying the confidence placed in him.
"There's no such thing as first-division or second-division coaches, individuals who are made for big clubs and others for small - there are just good coaches and bad ones," said the 40-year-old. "I'm still relatively new to this job and I admit that on occasion I still need to find my way. But it's true that my performance over the last five years has been fantastic."
That Mourinho-esque self-belief is not the only trait Duarte shares with his former mentor, who is also fiercely protective of his players while demanding 100 per cent commitment and loyalty in return. "I've always felt like that because I believe that we're hugely fortunate to be working in football," said Duarte.
"It's a very demanding job and certainly isn't easy, but it's the best in the world. I therefore expect my players to show respect for those who haven't had that opportunity. It's the squad that makes the player, never the other way around."
This is a formula that Duarte is in the process of instilling on a daily basis at Le Mans' La Pincenardiere training centre, not without the odd show of resistance from his players, but is one that has already made Burkina Faso a force in the African game. "Before I was appointed, the players didn't even talk to each other, some of them wouldn't even come on international duty," he explained.
"The team wasn't chosen by the coach and there were three basic principles missing: discipline, organisation and planning," he said regarding the situation upon taking the Burkina Faso job. "So I had to put the house in order, I even had to exclude four players. Nowadays, our discipline is our main strength. We're an average side on a continental scale, but we're capable of beating anyone on our day."
In Group E of the third and final qualifying round in African Zone qualifying, Burkina Faso are battling against Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Malawi for the section's one available berth at South Africa 2010. And though Duarte insists the main target is a place at next year's CAF African Cup of Nations in Angola, it would be churlish to dismiss a team who have risen 58 spots in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings since March 2008, and are currently Africa's 12th highest-placed side.
Up next on 5 September is perhaps Les Etalons' toughest encounter of the group stage, away against the pacesetting Ivorians in Abidjan, where a win is a must after 20 June's 3-2 home reverse against the same opponents. "It will be a tough game. In my opinion Côte d'Ivoire are the best team in Africa," said Duarte, whose side are currently second on six points after three group games, three points behind Didier Drogba and Co.
"But since our hopes of reaching the World Cup are still alive we have to go there and win. The Ivorians have plenty to lose, but we don't." Spoken like a true Mourinho disciple.