Why the World Cup needs Burkina Faso and how the Burkinabe Ronaldo and Giggs can get them there
If you’re looking for a reason to support Burkina Faso against Algeria in their World Cup 2014 qualifying playoff, consider this: along with Iceland, Burkina Faso are the only nation that can prevent Brazil 2014 from being statistically the most stale World Cup since 1950.
You could also count Jordan in this triumvirate of paupers, peeking curiously over the fence at the traditional banquet, but let’s face it - they’re not going to overturn a 5-0 deficit against Uruguay in Montevideo.
In 1950, England were the only newcoming nation at a 13-team World Cup – also held in Brazil. Since then, every World Cup has featured at least two nations making their finals debut, with Serbia and Slovakia appearing for the first time as independent nations in 2010.
Ranked 52nd in the world, Burkina Faso therefore stand as one of the last two remaining throws of the minnows' dice, as they look to join Bosnia-Herzegovina as romantic underdogs at 2014's showpiece event.
It won’t be easy, however. Home advantage is a significant factor in African football and Algeria - who must win after a 3-2 first leg defeat - will receive boisterous support, fired up by the perceived injustice of a late penalty conceded in the first clash.
Meet the Burkinabe Ronaldo and Giggs
Burkina Faso's rise from African football small fry to 2013 Africa Cup of Nations finalists and the brink of a first World Cup has been as rapid as it has been surprising, and is in no small part down to their attacking twin towers Alain Traore and Jonathan Pitroipa.
While the whole squad naturally deserves credit – with honourable mentions for captain Charles Kabore, midfield marauder Djakaridja Kone and Arisitide Bance, as erratic as his hair is eccentric – The Stallions' main hope of holding onto that 3-2 lead lies with Pitroipa and Traore.
Voted player of the tournament at the most recent Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa, where Burkina Faso lost narrowly to Nigeria in the final, Pitroipa is one of contemporary African football’s best and most exciting players, reflected in his recent nomination for BBC African Footballer of the Year.
A fleet of foot wide-man who can play as a traditional right winger, a left-sided winger cutting inside or, as he played in the first leg to devastating effect, a roaming attacking midfielder running at the heart of defence from central positions, Pitroipa is a wonderful sight to behold when on form.
In person he’s about 4ft 5in (well, 5ft 8in) – all skin and bone, the antithesis of the modern game’s Adonis prototype. A shy, polite and unassuming character, the man nicknamed the ‘Burkinabe Ronaldo’ (a moniker he doesn't entirely embrace) is down-to-earth, humble and generous with his time. On the field, however, he seems to grow another two feet, terrorising defenders twice his size, turning them in knots and gliding past them like a gazelle in full flight.
He’s not always the most consistent of players, as Rennes supporters will attest, but when on song, as he was in qualifying, Pitroipa is brilliant. In the first leg against Algeria in Ouagadougou, he won a penalty – missed by Bance – and then scored the opener minutes later, ghosting into the box to bury a flying header. The Desert Foxes simply couldn’t handle him.
Alain Traore is another talismanic player, and what a shame it is that injuries have continuously hampered his development over the last few seasons. A graceful attacking midfielder with a left foot so powerful it could floor Tyson, Traore had trials at Manchester United as a 17-year-old, but was unable to get a work permit to secure the transfer.
He remained inspired by advice he received from Sir Alex Ferguson and went on to join Auxerre and then current club Lorient, where his inevitable development into one of Ligue 1’s best players has sadly been hampered by persistent injuries.
“I’ll never forget the discussion I had with Ferguson in his office,” Traore recalled in 2011. “He said if I worked hard I could have the same success as Beckham. I also remember he was impressed with my left foot. He said ‘Alain, it’s better to have one great foot than two average feet; just look at Ryan Giggs.’ It was a great moment.”
Traore, rather predictably, has spent most of this season injured, but returned before the international break to play 77 minutes for Lorient against Reims. In terms of match fitness gained, these could end up being 77 of the most important minutes in Burkina Faso’s history, should Traore make an impact against Algeria, where both his and Pitroipa’s speed and penetration on the counter attack will be vital if Burkina Faso are to qualify.
Traore’s highly-rated 18-year-old brother Bertrand, on the books at Chelsea, is also likely to feature at some point, having impressed as a substitute in the first leg.
Aggro in Algeria
The buildup to the game in the northern Algerian city of Blida has been marred by the mud-slinging that came as a result of the penalty that won the first leg for Burkina Faso, conceded by Watford’s Essaid Belkalem, a penalty that probably never was.
The resulting tension forced the Burkinabe Football Federation (FBF) to return 1,500 allocated away tickets. The Stallions have spent a week at a training camp in Morocco and refused to speak to the Algerian press upon arrival in Alger.
“We are in a vital stage of our preparation, particularly from a psychological point of view, which will play a decisive role on Tuesday,” commented the Stallions’ Belgian coach Paul Put on arrival. “If Algeria qualify it wouldn’t be any surprise at all as they’re used to these types of big games. From our point of view we’ll do our best to secure a historic qualification for the Burkinabe people.”
Put will see the game as a chance at redemption after serving a three-year ban for match-fixing back in his native Belgium while manager of Lierse. Put claimed he was a scapegoat and that his family were threatened. The case is yet to be resolved.
So, with only one new participant currently pencilled in to spend next summer in Brazil, does the World Cup need Burkina Faso? FIFA may hope the underdogs can keep things interesting, given their decision to hold a post-2010 ‘random’ draw to determine intercontinental playoffs saw qualifying switch from CONCACAF v CONMEBOL (Costa Rica v Uruguay) and AFC v Oceania (Bahrain v New Zealand) in 2010 to CONCACAF v Oceania (Mexico v New Zealand) and CONMEBOL v AFC (Uruguay v Jordan) in 2014, a mismatch underlined by two one-sided first leg humpings.
The scope for surprise packages is dwindling. Burkina Faso, along with Iceland, are doing it for the little guy.