Djibril Ouattara violently flung an unopened bottle of water across the room, where it nestled in a kit bag. Goalkeeper Herve Koffi thumped his fist on the table, rattling the cutlery and leftover food. Gustavo Sangare noisily pulled his chair back and quietly walked out.

It was the morning of 24th January, and the Burkina Faso team had barely slept. Their country was entering a third day of political unrest and now, at breakfast, there was concrete confirmation.

The news of a brewing coup d’état was not fiction anymore. President Roch Kaboré had been overthrown.

Team coach Kamou Malo called his captain, Bertrand Traoré, for his opinion on how to handle his colleagues. Traore asked for a moment, spoke to Steeve Yago and Issoufou Dayo, the two most capped players in the team after him.

Bertrand suggested that Kamou temporarily lift the ban on using cell phones at certain times so that players could get in touch with their families.

Malo, a former police commissioner, knew it was important but was unsure of the emotional toll any bad news from home could have on the players. In the end, he did as his captain asked. The coach then asked for Sangare and the others who had walked out to come back, where he addressed them.

“The coach was very honest with us,” a member of the team tells The Analyst. “He told us to get in touch with the guys at home and make sure everyone is OK. If any of us had a family member in danger, we were to let him know so that calls can be made from here to see what can be done.”

Malo then played the emotional card.

“He told us that the only real thing we do from here in Cameroon is to play for our country, to send a message to the leaders that no matter what they do, they should just keep the people of Burkina Faso safe.”

The following five days were charged.

The coup leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Damiba, had promised to restore the constitution. For the moment, the country was under military rule.

On 25th January, Burkina Faso was suspended from ECOWAS, the west African regional bloc. The following day, Lt-Col Damiba spoke to the team.

“He assured us that the coup was not about shedding blood, and repeated what he always said elsewhere about improving the security situation in the country.”

Burkina Faso becomes the third country in the region to experience a coup in the past year alone, after Guinea and Mali (they had two coups each) – who were at the AFCON but exited at the round of 16.

“I know this team will go further than our Guinean and Malian brothers,” Damiba is reported to have said. Three days later, on 29th January, the Stallions played a blinder against Tunisia, winning 1-0.

The result is that they are into the semi-finals for the third time in the last five AFCON tournaments.

Exciting to Watch

The average age of the Stallions squad is just over 25 years old, and they do play like it. Fast and mobile football is what we’ve come to expect.  As the team style comparison graphic shows below, they are one of the most direct and vertical teams in the competition. Senegal, on the other hand, are more patient in possession and build the play more slowly.

Team style comparison - AFCON 2021

Sentiment does not work on coach Malo, which is why his son, Patrick – a defender in the squad – has not played a single minute this AFCON. It is also why his decision to not use his captain, Traoré – who had scored in the previous game – for the entire quarter-final against Tunisia, was not a surprise.

“Bertrand has played with the national team since he was 10 or 11 years old. Nobody understands the concept of teamwork better than he does,” Malo said of his star player at Tuesday’s pre-semi-final presser.

“He was not injured against Tunisia. We did not play him for tactical reasons. If we finish planning on how to play Senegal and he must start, he will start.”

Indeed, Traoré was sacrificed for Djibril Ouattara because Tunisia was expected to be physical, an atmosphere the coach did not want to throw his notoriously injury-prone Aston Villa man into. And it worked a treat as, together with Cyril Bayala and 19-year-old Dango Ouattara (there are three players named Ouattara, all unrelated) they pulled Tunisia’s defenders out of position time and again. The position map below shows how stretched Tunisia’s back four got in that first half, with the spaces between the two centre backs particularly wide.

Tunisia Avg. Positions vs. Burkina Faso

Not having to constantly rely on Traoré is one of the strengths of this team, who have a decent squad.

Take Egyptian-based midfielder Ibrahim Traoré, for instance. He has been deployed at this tournament as a forward-looking option, while Adama Guira remains in the holding role. Against Gabon in the round of 16, Ibrahim got injured in extra time and was replaced by Ismaihila Ouedraogo – a very decent deputy who can hold his own.

Shifting between 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1, Guira and Ibrahim (who recovered in time to play against Tunisia) have done well and will be expected to start again, while it remains to be seen if Bertrand will be sacrificed once more.

Against Senegal in Wednesday’s semi-final, the Stallions will find it will not be that simple.

Sadio Mané 2.0

Big players step up when they need to. And, boy, did Sadio Mané step up in the quarter-final against Equatorial Guinea. He was everywhere, assisting in defence, roving in midfield, and stealing pockets of space up front.

He was just one of many players in the Senegal side that played its most fluent football this tournament. The Liverpool man has been the ultimate team player.

“Yes, it’s my job and I have to do it. It is really important for me, and for the boys, to win the game. And to win, you need to do all the sacrifices,” he told Joy Sports after his assist helped the Teranga Lions go past Equatorial Guinea.

Those sacrifices mean even though he is scoring, the star man is – like Mo Salah for Egypt – playing multiple roles as scorer, assister, and motivator of the side.

Coach of the side, Aliou Cissé, has been stoic following the excellent performance, very much aware that anything other than the title could mean a sacking. This is his seventh year at the helm, and there is growing impatience that he’s reached a ceiling.

He’s started Mané on the left side of attack, where he combines with Saliou Ciss from left back to do damage. Cisse is likely to name an unchanged line up, something Burkina Faso coach Malo has done – throughout the competition, he has named unchanged sides in subsequent games. 

Who Has the Edge?

Quality wise, Senegal should edge it. Our tournament predictor sides with the Teranga Lions as well, giving them a 61.3% chance of progressing to the final.

However, coaching will be a major factor. If the Lions of the group stage turn up in Yaoundé, expect the Stallions to tactically outmuscle them. Otherwise, Cisse should make it two consecutive finals.

So, who wants it more?

Senegal, who have another generation that could come close and yet finish so far from the goal? Or Burkina Faso, who will play a game of football for the soul of their country?

Malo, ever the measured man, said at the presser that “this game is for us to give a bit of a smile back to the people back home, to tell them that whenever there is life, there is hope.”

‘Measured’ is not the word Burkinabé legend Aristide Bancé – now the team’s general manager – understands. When asked, in the mixed zone, if facing the Lions scared the Stallions, his response was typically defiant.

“Don’t underrate us. No matter what you do, don’t f**k with us.”

Konate after last 16 v. Gabon