x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

African Cup of Nations: moment of truth is upon Burkina Faso

The profile has risen for a team once known as Upper Volta and they are now one step away from hitting the peak at the African Cup of Nations.

After teams such as Cameroon, Nigeria and Zambia, it is Burkina Faso's turn to come good at the African Cup of Nations. Nic Bothma / EPA
After teams such as Cameroon, Nigeria and Zambia, it is Burkina Faso's turn to come good at the African Cup of Nations. Nic Bothma / EPA

Roger Binny. Madan Lal. Kirti Azad. Balwinder Singh Sandhu. Four men who played their parts in India's shock victory at the cricket World Cup in 1983.

Not one of them a candidate for the game's Hall of Fame, but destined to be remembered for what they did over the course of three weeks in an English summer, when India went from rank outsiders to the conquerors of the West Indies, a team so powerful they had not lost a World Cup game in two previous tournaments.

Now, consider these names. Theo Zagorakis. Traianos Dellas. Angelos Charisteas. Giorgos Karagounis.

When a list is drawn up years from now of the greatest footballers of the 21st century, not one of them will make the cut.

But over the course of a month in Portugal in 2004, they were the spine of a Greek side that pulled off the greatest upset in the history of international football, winning Euro 2004.

Along the way, they beat Portugal (twice), France, the defending champions, and the Czech Republic, whose stylish play had made them favourites to win the tournament.

Think also of the New Orleans Saints, who won the Super Bowl in February 2010, just four years after Hurricane Katrina had reduced their city to a wasteland.

Inducted into the National Football League in 1967, the Saints did not have a winning season until 20 years later. They finally won a play-off game in December 2000.

Despite being No 1 seeds in the NFC, few expected them to prevail in the Super Bowl against an Indianapolis Colts team that had started the season 14-0 and were quarterbacked by Peyton Manning, already a certainty for the Hall of Fame in Canton. But prevail they did.

To this list of sporting fairy tales, you can now add the Burkinabe, who overcame the might of Ghana and some abysmal officiating to reach the final of the African Cup of Nations.

Most of us would struggle to locate the country that was once known as Upper Volta in an atlas.

The name changed to Burkina Faso (land of honest people) in 1984, but as far as football was concerned, the country was not even a speck on the map.

They did reach the last four of the Cup of Nations when they hosted it in 1998, but the years since saw them slip back to the second rung, mere afterthoughts compared to the continental powerhouses such as Egypt, Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana.

Now, with a coach found guilty of match fixing in Belgium and a team comprising relative unknowns, they stand on the threshold of glory.

In this age of multi-million-dollar takeovers and player contracts worth the gross domestic product of a small country, football needs such Cinderella stories.

It needs a Bradford City, from English football's fourth tier, to go to Wembley to play Premier League Swansea City in the League Cup final.

It needs a lowly Oldham Athletic to rough up and embarrass Liverpool in the FA Cup.

It needs Burkina Faso to outplay a Ghana side full of players from Europe's elite leagues.

We need it to cling to the illusion that money is not everything. Think back to when those of us not from the continent first fell in love with African football.

For those with more grey in the hair, it was probably in 1982, when a Cameroon team in which Roger Milla starred were desperately unlucky not to qualify from a World Cup group that included Italy, the eventual winners, and Poland.

That was also the tournament in which West Germany and Austria colluded shamefully to prevent Algeria's progress.

The Algerians beat West Germany 2-1, and their performance in the competition is still remembered three decades on for the brilliance shown by Rabah Madjer - who famously scored with a back-heel in a European Cup final five years later - and Lakhdar Belloumi.

Fast forward eight years and you have Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, who beat Argentina in the tournament opener and then took England to extra-time in the quarter-final.

How could we forget Milla's exuberant goal celebrations, especially after he nicked the ball off Rene Higuita to score against Colombia?

Remember too Cyril Makanaky's virtuoso display against England, and the coolness with which Emmanuel Kunde put away his penalty.

Four years later, Nigeria's Super Eagles thrashed Greece, with the late Rashidi Yekeni's Incredible Hulk-like celebrations threatening to bring down the goal.

But most of all, when we think of African football, we think of Zambia.

A team cut down in its prime in an air crash in 1993, and the side that was assembled a generation later to win the continent's biggest prize, last year.

On Sunday, if the Burkinabe can upset Nigeria at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, they will join the select group of Davids who got the better of sporting Goliaths.


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