JOHANNESBURG // Burkina Faso have become the favourite adopted orphans of the 29th African Cup of Nations. Underdog status is obligatory for a country making their first appearance in the gold-medal match against a heavyweight, Nigeria, in their seventh final, but the affection, among neutrals, springs from several sources.
The Stallions, as the sporting representatives of one of the world's poorest states are known, have come through a grinding steeplechase of setbacks to be in Soweto for Sunday's final.
First, there was the blow delivered three weeks ahead of the tournament, when Fifa docked the Burkinabe a point from their continuing World Cup qualifying campaign for having fielded an ineligible, Cameroon-born player in a match against Democratic Repblic of Congo. Herve Zengue, who gained his Burkinabe citizenship hurriedly, had become a regular in midfield. He will not be any more.
Injury then cast doubt over the participation of striker and set-piece specialist Alain Traore. A half-fit Traore was included, scored the equaliser from the substitutes' bench in the 1-1 draw against Nigeria in the Stallions' opening fixture, but, two Traore goals and less than two hours of football later, he was being carried off on a stretcher.
His Nations Cup was over 12 days ago. First-choice goalkeeper, Abdoulaye Soulama, was by then suspended, red-carded in the 4-0 win – the one victory the Burkinabe have achieved within 90 minutes here – against Ethiopia.
So Paul Put, their Belgian coach, needed to forage about his resources for a scorer and a keeper. Up front, he had Moumouni Dagano, the country's all-time leading goal scorer, the squad's captain. But by two and half weeks into the tournament he had reluctantly concluded Dagano was horribly out of form. He was dropped.
By now, Put himself was coming under supplementary strain. As he celebrated Burkina's arrival in the last four, thanks to a Jonathan Pitroipa goal in extra-time against Togo, his chequered past came suddenly under the spotlight.
Europol, the body representing police forces across Europe, announced more than 600 professional matches across world football were under match-fixing scrutiny. Put is currently serving a ban from working in Belgian football because of his involvement in a 2005 match-fixing scandal there.
He thought he had left that episode behind him by embarking on a career in Africa. The Europol headlines meant each Burkina news conference would be dominated by questions to Put about corruption.
Somehow, though, these underdogs have created an impressive shield against setback. They mastered a nail-bed of a playing surface in Nelspruit through the group stage and knockouts; they defied some dreadful refereeing, with most bad decisions leaning in favour of Ghana, their opponents, in the semi-final.
Soulama's replacement, Daouda Diakite has become a key man in the most impeccable defence in the tournament. With Bakary Kone and Paul Koulibaly a pair of martial sentries in front of him, Burkina Faso have not conceded a goal in open play for more than eight hours.
They had some good news, too, 48 hours ahead of their showdown with Nigeria. Referee Slim Jedidi acknowledged officially his decision to book Pitroipa for simulation against Ghana had been wrong. The wispy winger's suspension has been lifted.
"It's good news for him and for the country," said Put, relieved that something, off the field, had at last turned out all right.
'Underdogs' still raring to go despite taxing flight
Burkina Faso are lapping up the mantle of underdogs bestowed upon them against Nigeria on Sunday.
"We are facing the biggest football nation in Africa with a lot of top players. Nigeria are favourites, we’re underdogs, it’s already a victory to get to the final, now we’ll see what happens tomorrow," said manager Paul Put.
He went on to express concern at a taxing trip from their South African headquarters in Nelspruit to Johannesburg on Friday.
"It’s not good that we had a 10-hour wait at the airport in Nelspruit. It was very difficult, when we finally arrived all the players had heavy legs."
Charles Kabore, who has been wearing the armband with captain Moumouni Dagano failing to make the starting line-up, added: "We’ve got quality players and we’ll play to our maximum with no regret, and hopefully have a bit of luck. We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to win – we’ll play without any pressure."
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