Burkina Faso’s coach, Paul Put, says it will be, "like the war" when his team attempts to overcome the odds and silence a hysterical home crowd in Algeria on Tuesday night, with the prize of the country's first World Cup finals berth on the line.
His national federation appear to agree and—to avoid any casualties—they have returned their 1,500 tickets and decided not to take any supporters with them.
The Burkinabe Football Federation (FBF) is blaming the Algerian media for their "no fans" decision, claiming that "exaggerations" in the media had created a dangerous atmosphere after a controversial late penalty call gave Burkina a 3-2 win in the home leg over Algeria. Burkina does not wish to "expose" their supporters to danger.
Newspapers in Ouagadougou also reported that Algerian individuals had added to the toxic build-up to the game by referring to the Burkinabe on Twitter as "banana eaters," "slaves" and "monkeys." One Algerian newspaper called the first-leg referee "a bastard" in a headline, and there have been countless claims of biased officiating in favor of the Burkinabe.
"There will be things to destabilize us," Burkina Faso defender Bakary Kone said. "Discipline and a strong mental approach is most important."
According to press reports in Ouagadougou, the Burkinabe capital, a special police squad has been assigned to the visiting team.
Burkina spent a week training in Morocco before flying to Algeria at the last moment. The Associated Press reports 9,000 police will be on duty in the city of Blida, where the game will be played. If Algeria fail at the Mustapha Tchaker Stadium, where they have not been beaten in 21 games stretching back to 2002, those police might be busy.
Algeria, who have qualified three times since 1982 and held England to a goalless draw at the last World Cup in South Africa, are strong favorites. Should Burkina Faso qualify, it would be one of the great achievements in World Cup history.
The landlocked West African country is one of the poorest in the world—ranked 205 in a list of 229 by the CIA in terms of annual per capita income. Drought and disease are commonplace, and the European Union has just signed off on an aid package worth 623 million euros over the next six years—to be spent on health, agriculture and governance.
The whole country is behind the 'Etalons' (Stallions), as the national team are known.
Their remarkable journey from nobodies in African football to somebodies in the world game—ranked 52 by FIFA and capable of better—started in 1998 when they hosted the African Cup of Nations. The Etalons lost the opening game to Cameroon and were expected to go out in the group stages. A sensational victory—over Algeria—put them back in the running, and the 1-0 win against Guinea that took them into the quarterfinals led to some of the most remarkable celebrations ever seen after a football match.
The roads leading from the stadium back to the center of Ouagadougou were lined with bodies of all ages. They shouted, sang, danced, banged their pots and pans and kept the noise up for hours. There were said to be more than a million people on the streets after that win; there will be even more Tuesday night if the Etalons hold on to their advantage.
During that same tournament in 1998, the country’s first football academy, Planete Champion, was opened on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. It was created by a Frenchman who lived in Burkina Faso, but all the coaches were Burkinabe. Planete Champion churned out a stream of quality players. The first agent to sign them up for European clubs was Nick Neururer, a former player and coach from Salzburg who now works for the Austrian federation.
"It has been a slow process, but the game has developed in Burkina and the latest generation of players is very good," said Neururer, who has returned to Ouagadougou many times. "The players are down-to-earth, well educated, reliable—you never hear anything negative about them. And they are very talented."
One of Neururer’s best was Jonathan Pitroipa, who started at Freiburg in Germany and now plays for Stade Rennais FC in France. Pitroipa was voted player of the tournament at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, in which Burkina Faso were runners-up, losing 1-0 to Nigeria in the final.
Another of the Planete Champion stars is striker Alain Traore, who returns from injury on Tuesday night. He plays for Lorient in France and his younger brother, Bertrand, 18, has just signed a long-term contract for Chelsea. Bertrand came on as a substitute in the first leg and could play a part in Blida.
"The kid is ready to make an impact," said Jose Mourinho, his manager at Chelsea. "He is one of the best talents of his age. Burkina Faso have some impressive players."
Planete Champion seems sure to continue to produce good players. It has been taken over by two of the international players—Pitroipa and Wilfried Sanou, a former teammate at Planete Champion and Freiburg who now plays in Japan.
The man who helped them assume control of the academy, Volker Finke, will be cheering them on Tuesday night. Finke was their manager at Freiburg and has just enjoyed his first success at international level—he manages the Cameroon team that qualified for Brazil over the weekend.
Finke will be one of many hoping Burkina Faso's fairytale-against-adversity story comes to fruition. A World Cup beckons and, if they make it, they have a chance to show every nation on the planet that pretty much anything is possible.
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