Despite having played just one match in CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying, Burkina Faso appear solidly in control of their group and look like continuing their emergence on the continental scene. Known as the 'The Stallions,' the Burkinabe are galloping up on the outside of the lead horses, and the ambitious side are pushing hard for a place among the elite.

Drawn into a tricky Group F on the path to the 2012 finals, to be co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso top the three-team table having beaten their main rivals, Gambia, in an impressive 3-1 home win at the beginning of October. Last month also marked the high-water mark for the nation in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, where they peaked at 37 in the world and in the top ten in Africa. Compare that to just three years ago when they were ranked 113th, and the rate of their growth becomes clear.

Progress, short and long
Despite a prolonged slump that saw them miss out on the continental finals in 2006 and 2008, Burkina Faso's confidence has been cresting for much of the last 30 months. First they topped their 2010 FIFA World Cup™ and Cup of Nations second round qualifying group in front of favoured Tunisia, and though they could not derail Côte d'Ivoire's campaign to reach South Africa, they did make a stir at the Angola finals earlier this year. A scoreless draw against the mighty Ivorians was no fluke, and a nail-biting 1-0 loss to eventual finalists Ghana was enough to see them out due to the withdrawal of Togo from their group.

We have a great generation of players. The medium age of the team is 26 years old, and I am slowly but surely bringing new players into this group.

Burkina Faso coach Paulo Duarte on his team's promising group of youngsters

The recent turnaround coincided with the hiring of Portuguese coach Paulo Duarte, who has overseen the emergence of a group of outstandingly talented youngsters since taking over at the start of 2008. The 41-year-old former defender has been called the 'Mourinho of Africa' due to his emphasis on discipline and on scripting out expectations for his players. Looking back at the Angola adventure, Duarte told African Football Media that the performance was merely a stepping stone to bigger achievements. “Angola is in the past. We were in the most difficult group, but we achieved something great against Côte d'Ivoire,” he said. “Now, the next step is to qualify for the next competition. We have a great generation of players. The medium age of the team is 26 years old, and I am slowly but surely bringing new players into this group.”

Development is not a short-term project, and most with longer memories point to the Burkinabe's qualification for the 1996 AFCON in South Africa as the moment when things began to change for the west Africans. It was just their second time in the continental finals, but after that, the Stallions upped their ambitions and started targeting more youth and foreign-based players, of which there were few at that time. Their goals were fulfilled two years later when they hosted the Cup of Nations in style. Led by the experienced Frenchman Philippe Troussier, they finished fourth after beating countries like Algeria and Tunisia, and since then, they have featured regularly at the event.

Their youth programs have borne fruit as well, and they first reached the finals of a FIFA tournament at the U-17 World Cup in 1999. Their peak was two years later when they finished third at the same tournament in Trinidad and Tobago, beating Spain and Argentina on the way. They also reached the second round of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2003, featuring a generation, then coached by the Dutchman Mart Nooij (now in charge of Mozambique), that produced solid senior players like powerful striker Aristide Bance (Al-Ahly Dubai) and Egypt-based goalkeeper Daouda Diakite.

Stars shining the way
Last week, Burkina Faso continued their good form with a friendly win over another emerging African side, Guinea, on the outskirts of Paris. Led by their most incisive player upfront, Hamburg's Jonathan Pitroipa, they showed themselves again extremely dangerous with the ball. “The group is still very young, but they are very skilful,” said Pitroipa. “We were unfortunate not to make the second round in Angola, but we asked the people of Burkina Faso for forgiveness, and we have promised to qualify for 2012. We believe we can keep improving.”

Duarte established discipline in the team and gave us the drive and ability to compete in every match.

Promising midfielder Charles Kabore

After the match against Guinea, Duarte was pleased with the young squad. “We were without seven regular starters,” he said. “It's a good opportunity to see how they do. My eyes are still fixed on the 2012 Cup of Nations, so I try to make these changes with intelligence. We will meet up again in February in Portugal to prepare for our next qualifier against Namibia. We are conscious of our responsibilities as a national team, and we are determined to go back to the finals stronger than ever.”

Along with Pitroipa, the other key figure for the Stallions is Charles Kabore. Such are the skills of the Marseille defensive midfielder that he has been linked with moves to club giants such as Chelsea and Barcelona. For his national team, Kabore plays like a man on a mission, and despite the fact that he is just 22 years old, he is captain of the team and the proud leader of a the young generation of players. He has also credited Duarte for his influence on the side, and he said recently that he expects great things from the Burkinabe.

“Duarte established discipline in the team and gave us the drive and ability to compete in every match,” said the blossoming talent. “We are increasing in our abilities all the time. We have a good group now that believes in itself and plays as a team. In three or four years, we could make things very interesting. For now, we are shooting for the 2012 qualification and then - why not? - the World Cup, if things keep going well.”