Nelspruit, South Africa: For a team that arrived in South Africa with modest ambitions of ending a sorry winless run stretching back to 17 Africa Cup of Nations matches, Burkina Faso haven’t done too badly.
Coach Paul Put must have added something to the Stallions’ water supply for they have not only achieved that but also stampeded through the first round, clinching an improbable top spot in Group C.
The Burkinabe qualified for the quarter-finals the hard way.
Drawn in one of the toughest first-round groups, they opened with a 1-1 draw against two-time former champions Nigeria.
Then followed the 4-0 demolition of Ethiopia, a remarkable result given they played much of the match with 10 men.
That put them on the brink of the quarter-finals, but there was still the not insignificant task of facing Herve Renard’s reigning champions Zambia on Nelspruit’s tricky threadbare pitch on Tuesday night.
Tactically astute, Put’s men succeeded in eking out a goalless draw, and that despite Alain Traore, the competition’s leading goalscorer, being stretchered off injured in the opening minutes.
That left them topping Group C on goal difference from Nigeria, and crucially avoiding 2013 favourites Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals.
Instead they will play the Group D runners-up Togo or Tunisia.
Their presence in the last eight is an enormous achievement for a team that has suffered first round knockouts in all but seven of their eight appearances in the competition.
The Stallions’ only previous appearance in the knockout stages was back in 1998, when they finished fourth on home soil.
Put reflected: “This is our biggest ever achievement. We made it to the semi-finals once but that was when we were the hosts.
“Our first target at this Nations Cup was to do better than previous tournaments by winning a match. We did that against Ethiopia, then we set our next target, qualification, and we’ve achieved that.
“We had the belief that we could do better.
“I told the players they had the chance to write history for Burkina Faso, and they went out and wrote it.”
Despite the heavily-criticised playing surface at Nelspruit, Put said he was happy to be staying here for their quarter-final, in contrast to Nigeria who will face Ivory Coast in Rustenburg.
“That’s an advantage, this is our home ground now,” said the 56-year-old, who is banned from coaching in his home country Belgium after receiving a three-year suspended prison sentence for match-fixing.
He was found guilty of taking money from a Chinese betting syndicate during his time as coach of Lierse to influence players to fix results.
Put, who coached Gambia before replacing former Burkina boss Paulo Duarte last year, added: “We knew Zambia had nothing to lose, we expected them to attack. So over the last two days in training we’ve been concentrating on defensive tactics.
“It wasn’t pretty, but you have to be realistic, the most important thing was to qualify.”
Put and Burkina Faso fans everywhere must have thought their dream had turned into a nightmare when on eight minutes Traore, whose deadly left foot has struck three times, was stretchered off.
Put acknowledged: “We had a plan, and when Alain came off I had to tear it up.”
The Lorient midfielder sustained a left thigh injury, but Put expressed cautious optimism that he would be fit in time for Sunday’s last eight fixture.