Zambia’s victory in last year’s Africa Cup of Nations was a great story, and one that even the crustiest of cynics could get behind. A team returned to the site of the national tragedy in which their fathers’ wonderfully talented generation of footballers were killed, and won the trophy against overwhelming odds. They sung in unison as the emotional penalty shootout unfolded, and when the celebrations began, the coach picked up an injured player and carried him across the pitch to his jubilant teammates. What wasn’t to like?
Burkina Faso are this year’s Zambia. A footballing minnow that have shocked the great names of African football with a series of audacious, spirited displays and have made it all the way to the final, overcoming great adversity along the way. What’s not to like? Well, they’re coached by one Paul Put, a sunburnt Belgian who is one of a small handful of coaches to have been banned from football for match-fixing. He calls himself “football’s Lance Armstrong” (half-scapegoat, half-whistleblower, apparently), but if he’s expecting the call from Oprah it could be a long wait. And with revelations this week of the massive scale of match-fixing across the global game (yes we’re looking at you South Africa Football Association), sympathy for scapegoats is running low. Maybe this will turn into a great redemption story for Put, but we’ll take some convincing.
Not only that, but the man misses no opportunity to genuflect publicly to Burkina Faso’s de facto life president Blaise Compaoré, best known for murdering Thomas Sankara (“an accident”), shit-stirring across the continent while posing as some kind of peacemaker, and presiding over a lurch to the right that has enabled him and a tiny corrupt elite to amass great wealth at the expense of ordinary people (let’s see how long those term-limits last). Speaking to the international press, our man Paul Put described Les Etalons quarter-final victory over Togo as a “birthday present” to Compaoré (apparently the players, most of whom have never known another president, were “extra-motivated” by the fact that they were playing on Blaise’s 62nd birthday).
Let’s hope the Stallions are playing for Sankara on Sunday.
Still, whatever you say about the man, he’s done a remarkable job with this Burkina Faso side, which lost every game it played in the last Afcon. Tactically, he hasn’t made a wrong decision all competition and the team have been a joy to watch throughout, even after the loss of their wonderful forward Alain Traoré to injury. Strong at the back and fluid and dangerous in attack, Put has clearly filled his players with enormous belief, and their hugely impressive captain Charles Kaboré said as much after the Ghana game.
That semi-final is a game I will not forget, one of the best in any international competition in recent years. More than anything I will remember Jonathan Pitroipa: juggling the ball, dancing around defenders, surging towards goal every chance he got and playing always with a blend of showmanship and generosity that is so rare to see from anyone who is so much their side’s star player. He seemed to have a stamina beyond anyone else out there, and as nerves and cramp set in all around him, he kept on tormenting the Black Stars and looked fresh for another 120 minutes on the painted sand of Nelspruit. Events like the Nations Cup are the great stages on which sporting history is made and there is nothing in football like watching a great talent make that stage their own.
Pitroipa’s was a performance for the ages, and if those clowns at CAF (which has, don’t forget, its own notoriously corrupt life president in Issa Hayatou) don’t rescind the red card and let him play in the final, they will have robbed their showpiece game of the player of the tournament.
I haven’t come across a Ghanaian fan, shellshocked as they are, who wasn’t appalled by referee Jdidi’s alarming bias throughout the game and convinced that Burkina Faso should have had that last-minute penalty. Maybe Paul Put was right about match-fixing being a massive problem at all levels of the game. After all, he should know.