Burkina Faso face Niger this Saturday in qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, determined to breathe fresh life into their faltering campaign. Paul Put's side made a disastrous start to the second round of preliminaries nine months ago, but resume their push for Brazil 2014 buoyed by their recent second-place finish at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2013.
As winger Jonathan Pitroipa told FIFA.com, the Stallions will be looking to draw on the same strength and belief that took them so close to Cup of Nations glory. "We had not expected to go all the way to the final," said the 26-year-old. "Our objective at the start was simply to get out of our group. Once we had done that, we stopped imposing limits and told ourselves that anything was possible."
"We've got a good group of players with a very strong team spirit, and we believed in ourselves. All those elements combined to take us to the final, and playing in that decider was a turning point in terms of our self-belief and our desire to progress. We're all now much more aware of our capabilities."
That remarkable run in South Africa could now serve as a springboard for Burkina Faso as they seek to get their Brazil 2014 campaign back on track. The Stallions have been rock-bottom of Group E in the African zone since June 2012, following their opening 3-0 home defeat by Congo and subsequent 1-0 loss away to Gabon.
"The other teams know us better now, and they'll be expecting more from us," said Pitroipa. "The fact that we reached the [Cup of Nations] final means that our opponents will probably be more wary of us, which will make our task more difficult. If we want to stay where we are now, we'll need to put in a lot of hard work."
No switching off
Niger, Burkina Faso's next opponents, finished bottom of Group B at the 2013 Cup of Nations, but Pitroipa knows his team cannot afford to be overconfident. "The fear that we put into our opponents is something that might work to our advantage," he said, "but I think the challenge for our team will be to prove that we are worthy of our new-found status. We mustn't lose sight of what we have achieved, and we must stay mentally strong. It's no mistake that we are where we are."
The fear that we put into our opponents is something that might work to our advantage.
For Pitroipa, the disappointment of losing the Cup of Nations final to Nigeria was offset by the satisfaction of being named player of the tournament. "If you had told me that at the start, I would have had one or two doubts," he said. "But as the matches went by and my performances improved, I started to tell myself that it was possible." The best player title was just reward for Pitroipa's fine form at the tournament, but it also served to highlight how far he has come for club and country in recent years.
Pitroipa's European career began at the age of 18, in Germany, where he made seven years of steady progress. His mazy dribbles, surging runs and physical force made him a firm favourite at Freiburg and later Hamburg, before catching the eye of French side Rennes, for whom he has played for the past two seasons.
With six goals and three assists in Ligue 1 this term, Pitroipa is well on course to match his best return for a season, and is hoping to help Rennes finish the campaign with a flourish. "We're not far off a European place," he said, "but the table is very tight. We've also got the Coupe de la Ligue final to play against Saint-Etienne, which is an important objective for us."
With such ambitious targets at club level, and Burkina Faso's Brazil 2014 dreams still alive, Pitroipa knows the importance of consistency and constantly striving to improve: "I need to be even more decisive, and to score even more goals. That's what I'm trying to do now."