WAFU Cup: Burkina Faso eye Ghana win as rebuilding exercise continues
Burkina Faso and Ghana collide in Friday's WAFU Cup of Nations quarterfinal, with the Stallions eyeing the regional competition as an imperative next step in their rebuilding operation.
As recently as 2017, the two teams met in an Africa Cup of Nations third-placed playoff match, having been defeated by Egypt and Cameroon respectively in their semifinal bouts. It was a rematch of their 2013 Afcon semifinal, where Burkina Faso stunned the Black Stars to set up a final showdown with Nigeria.
Since those heady days, however, Burkina Faso's fortunes have fallen dramatically.
Their wait for a maiden World Cup berth continued as they were beaten to Russia by Senegal during the 2018 qualifiers, and they were eliminated in the first round of the African Nations Championship (CHAN) early last year after taking just two points from three group-stage matches.
The nadir came in the Afcon 2019 qualifying campaign when, despite being pooled into a favourable group, they were unable to unseat either Angola or Mauritania from the top two spots and therefore missed out on Egypt.
It represented a startling fall from prominence for the West Africans, runners-up in 2013, to miss out on the 2019 edition only two and a half years after taking bronze in Gabon.
Captain Aboubacar Sawadogo believes that the ongoing WAFU Cup can play an important role as the Stallions look to return to prominence within the continental arena.
"I believe that, with rebuilding, and with the new team managers, who are Burkinabe and here with us, we can begin to do great things again," he told ESPN ahead of the team's meeting with Ghana.
"There are young players here, who are with us, who can bring a lot to Burkina Faso."
Coach Seydou Zerbo, nicknamed Krol after the Netherlands defender Ruud Krol, was a World Cup finalist in 1974 and 1978, and a three-time European Cup winner, and was appointed as head coach of the local Stallions in April 2018, replacing Drissa 'Saboteur' Malo after the latter's underwhelming CHAN campaign.
Zerbo was promoted from Burkina Faso's youth set-up, and has worked with several members of the current WAFU squad in age-grade competitions.
Despite the optimism, Zerbo's side rode their luck in their opener against Mauritania, with Yannick Pougnongo striking an 85th-minute equaliser from the penalty spot after Taghy Denne had given Les Mourabitounes the lead.
Burkina Faso, who had been unlucky to fall behind, then won 4-3 in the resulting shootout to advance to the Cup competition and send Mauritania into the Plate tournament.
"This can be the moment for Burkina Faso to shine again," added the experienced Sawadogo, who was part of the squad that defeated Ghana to finish third at Afcon 2017.
"We have many players who are emerging, many talented young players in our country, and who are on the brink of moving to Europe.
"These players are at the level to contribute, and they're working hard to get there."
Sawadogo, one of only two players in the Burkina Faso squad at the WAFU Cup to have been a part of the senior side, relishes the responsibility of captaining this talented group as he looks to prepare the players - hopefully - for life with the full national team one day.
As a player who has straddled the successes of the past, as well as the paucity of the present, he could have a unique role to play in Burkina Faso's rebuilding operation.
"I think I play an important role in this team," he continued. "From the moment the coach gave me the armband, to make me the captain, a lot is up to me.
"I must look after my young teammates, those who don't yet know or understand the high level of competition, and it's up to me to oversee them, so that they can blossom in this team and for Burkina Faso."
The experienced goalkeeper sees the WAFU Cup as important in its own right, but also as ideal preparation for the upcoming CHAN competition for home-based players, which will be hosted by Cameroon in January.
The clash against Ghana will be the fifth competitive meeting between the two nations since the start of 2017.
The match comes, intriguingly, in the midst of the two-legged CHAN qualifier between the two, who have been pitted together in a rematch of their qualifying double header for the 2018 edition, which Burkina Faso won 4-3 on aggregate.
Pougnongo, who also netted the decisive penalty in the shootout victory over Mauritania, scored the only goal of the first leg between the pair - a 94th-minute winner in Kumasi - to give the Stallions the advantage ahead of the return match in Ouagadougou on October 18.
It's a recent result that may give Burkina Faso the psychological edge against their nearby neighbours as they look to eliminate the Black Stars from both the WAFU Cup and CHAN in the space of two weeks.
"I'm very optimistic," concluded Sawadogo, who saved a Mauritanian penalty in the shootout. "We still have one match to play against Ghana to qualify for the CHAN, one match to play to get there, but we know that we'll give everything to ensure we do."
"We know it's going to be a difficult match," responded Ghana's Ali Ouattara, speaking up for the Black Stars' chances.
"[Pougnongo] is certainly not bad, but by the grace of God, we're going to win it."