Stallions take big leap forward
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After their surprise run in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Burkina Faso have climbed to 55th in February’s FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, up 37 spots from the month before when they became the lowest ranked team ever to make the ultimate match of the AFCON. It’s a dramatic leap for the west Africans, but one corresponding to the shock run of success that saw the Stallions reach their first major final.

Going into the Cup of Nations the Burkinabe had only once managed to escape the group stage of the event despite having qualified for the tournament eight previous times. That success came as hosts in 1998 when they finished fourth, but since then there has been little on the continental scene to suggest the success that was South Africa 2013. The Stallions managed only four draws and no victories from their previous 17 AFCON matches. And although they did qualify for the 2012 edition, a poor showing saw their ranking tumble and they fell all the way to 92nd in this January’s rankings - their lowest position since the summer of 2008.

However, it hasn’t been all bad times for the Burkinabe, and they have been a familiar face in the top 60 of the rankings in recent years, just as they have been frequent visitors to the Cup of Nations. But with Belgian Paul Put installed as coach in March last year, things have consistently been on the up, and there were two major turning points for the side over the last year. First, the Stallions overcame one of the continent’s most improved sides Central African Republic to qualify for the AFCON, and that was no easy task. They lost 1-0 in Bangui and then gave up an early away goal in the home leg, so they had to come up with three goals - the last of which only came six minutes into second-half injury-time from Alain Traore.

Traore was again the central figure in the second key moment, which came in Group C of the Cup of Nations. Drawn into a section with defending champions Zambia, two-time heavyweights Nigeria and Ethiopia, Burkina Faso were long shots to escape as one of the top two teams, but it was the Lorient striker again who popped up with the last kick in the opening match against the Super Eagles to secure a 1-1 draw. That opening point gathered momentum into the second contest, where Traore scored twice more as Burkina Faso brushed aside Ethiopia 4-0, despite losing Traore to injury and being reduced to 10 men in the second half. After that, the side looked full of belief, and Put said it was mission accomplished even before the impressive draw that knocked the Zambians out of the finals. “Going into the finals in South Africa I told my players that they had to believe in themselves, and that if they did that they could go far,” said the coach.

Looking for more success
And so the upstarts topped Group C to the shock of everybody and secured a place in the knockout rounds. A 1-0 victory over Togo after extra time was impressive enough, but the Burkinabe saved their best performance of the finals for the last four, where they ended up defeating Ghana on penalties. Despite the 1-1 score at the end of time, observers were overwhelmed by the quality of Burkina Faso’s display against the side that had become favourites to win the event following the elimination of Côte d’Ivoire. Jonathan Pitroipa, who scored the winner against Togo, was dominant driving the team forward even against the vaunted midfield of the Black Stars, and powerful striker Aristide Bance proved himself a worthy replacement for Traore, who by that time had flown back to his French club for treatment.

In the 1-0 defeat to Nigeria in the final, Burkina Faso lacked some of the flair that they had shown previously, which Put blamed on both the nature of the occasion and fatigue. "We showed a bit too much respect for Nigeria in the first half, and in the second we were trying to do everything in possession,” he said. “We were possibly a little tired after two extra-time games, but I don't want to make excuses.”

But in the end, it was an undeniably proud moment for the Stallions, and the achievement has seen them rise to ninth in the African rankings - ahead of such traditional powers as South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and Cameroon. “We did a great job, and the whole country can be proud of their players. We showed maturity, but there is always more improvement to be done," said Put.
 
Burkina Faso are currently some way off their highest-ever world ranking, which is 37th achieved in both 2010 and 2011, but the ambition of reaching for greater things was also there for Pitroipa, who was named player of the tournament. "There are lots of regrets, but the fact that we made it to the final is already a good sign of a decent journey. We showed great spirit, but we're disappointed and we can still do better."