The African Cup of Nations engraves a new name on its honours board frequently in the new millennium. Tunisia had never been champions of their continent, before, as hosts, they lifted the prize in 2004. Zambia celebrated a first 12 months ago, giving the title a rare trip south of the equator.
With the champions out at the group phase, and the pre-tournament favourites, Ivory Coast, and the hosts, South Africa ousted at the quarter-finals, whoever wins the Nations Cup on Sunday night will be ending a long wait. Nigeria, who meet Mali in the Durban semi-final tomorrow, were last champions in 1994; Ghana, who play Burkina Faso in Nelspruit, have a 31-year-itch to scratch.
Neither Mali nor Burkina Faso have ever won a Nations Cup. Mali's only previous final was fully 41 years ago, and Burkina Faso have never been beyond the last four, an achievement that matches what they achieved as Afcon hosts in 1998. Their momentum here has echoes of that run, and they boast a daunting defensive record. It is over six hours of football since the Burkinabe conceded a goal in South Africa.
They are well-drilled.
"What we have worked on in training has come off for us," said Burkina Faso's Belgian coach, Paul Put after the 1-0 extra-time win over Togo that guided Les Etalons, the Stallions, to the last four. "We have shown great application physically."
Mali coach Patrice Carteron said his team also have the stamina to go all the way. Twice, against DR Congo in the last Group match and against South Africa in a quarter-final won via penalties, Mali have recovered from a goal down to rescue their campaign. "We have come through tough situations," he said.
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