x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

African Cup of Nations: Burkina Faso's Jonathan Pitroipa is a joke, a muse and a winner

The gifted winger has come a long way from the German Bundesliga days, writes Ian Hawkey.

Jonathan Pitroipa was only 11 when Burkina Faso last made it to the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations. Stephane de Sakutin / AFP
Jonathan Pitroipa was only 11 when Burkina Faso last made it to the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations. Stephane de Sakutin / AFP

Jonathan Pitroipa is the sort of footballer who divides opinion sharply.

Mention the Burkina Faso winger to Bundesliga followers, or at least those without an affiliation for Hamburg, and they might most easily recall his spectacular misses, presented with inviting space and favourable angles in front of goal in high-profile matches.

They once made Pitroipa the butt of jokes for a German television comedian named Oliver Dittlich.

At the same time, Pitroipa may be the only Burkinabe footballer who has a hit song devoted to his out-of-the-ordinary skill.

Flamzy and Joskar, a popular Ivorian duo, paid homage, inspired by a Burkina Faso-Ivory Coast match where the wispy winger showcased his best portfolio: speedy, the ball apparently magnetised to his instep, wriggling past his markers.

To that portfolio was added, on Sunday, a rare sight: a powerful, punchy, near-post header, the only goal against Togo and Burkina Faso's ticket to the African Cup of Nations semi-final against Ghana.

Pitroipa is no giant, quite the opposite, but the spring he found to nod home a historic goal for his country, on tired legs deep into extra time of the quarter-final spoke of determination and self-belief.

He is having a fine tournament in South Africa, and probably the best season of his career with Rennes in France's Ligue 1.

Pitroipa was 11 when Burkina Faso last made the last four of Nations Cup.

Ouagadougou, his hometown, rocked. Burkina Faso finished fourth, on their own soil, that year. They then waited another 15 years to see evidence that being chosen as one of the more unlikely hosts of an Afcon had given their football momentum.

At 14, as Pitroipa tells it, he realised he could run exceptionally fast. He was encouraged to head up the road that leads north out of Ougadougou to the Planete Champion football school, which had been set up at the time of the 1998 Nations Cup in Burkina Faso, and test himself against his contemporaries.

Scouts from European clubs liked his velocity but worried about his fragile, dainty-looking physique.

Freiburg took him on and, persuaded by what they saw of him there, Hamburg then signed him, appreciated his capacity to torment full-backs, but regretted a lack of consistency, and a low ratio of goals to games.

Back home, Planete Champion closed after about 10 years, having lost some of its financial backing, and struggling to find others in one of west Africa's poorest countries. But many of its graduates thrived.

Alain Traore, the striker now at Lorient in France and scorer of three Burkinabe goals in the group phase here, is another. Traore's Afcon is over, though, because of the thigh injury he sustained in the 0-0 draw with Zambia.

That puts more responsibility on the narrow shoulders of Pitroipa. So far he has worn it impressively.

His strike against Togo was his second goal of the tournament, his ninth of a season where for Rennes – he moved to France 18 months ago – his finishing has been sharp, his confidence high.

If the outcome rests at all on who masters best the irregular surface of the Mbombela Stadium's frightful pitch, Pitroipa's deft footwork may be key. He has tamed it as well as anybody.

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