The stereotypical question asked in England of skillful players operating overseas is whether they could do it on a wet Wednesday in Stoke. The assumption is that neat technical ball-players might find it difficult in poor conditions against a physically robust opponent. On Sunday, Burkina Faso will have to answer the opposite question: it has proved it can do it on a sandpit in Nelspruit, but can it do it on a decent surface in Johannesburg?
Burkina Faso's progress though the Cup of Nations has been, as a leader in the Burkinabe newspaper Le Pays put it, "a miracle." This is a nation that, in 20 attempts, had never previously won a game in the Cup Nations on foreign soil. It seems almost curmudgeonly to point out that this time around it has won just one in normal time - plus the extra-time quarterfinal victory over Togo. Even more so to ask whether the Stallions were helped by playing all their games so far in Nelspruit, where the pitch, ruined by a fungal infection brought on by unusually heavy rain, was reduced to a bobbly, sand-covered surface that made neat passing football all but impossible and so emphasized the defensive side of the game.
Paul Put, Burkina Faso's controversial coach who was banned for three years in Belgium because of his involvement in a match-fixing scandal, has spoken of his side maturing as the tournament has gone on and that was evident in the epic semifinal against Ghana. In the first four matches, Burkina Faso was solid and, thanks to Alain Traore and Jonathan Pitroipa, had sufficient attacking craft to take advantage of the few chances that came its way. Put is clear about his approach: "keep a clean sheet and you're bound to get three or four chances."
But the semifinal offered something more, even without Traore, who suffered a thigh injury in the final group game and is out of the tournament. Aristide Bance, so often an inconsistent and frustrating forward, was magnificent in leading the line and, if he missed three or four makeable chances, he also took a vital one, scoring the equalizer amid a period of protracted Burkinabe pressure that demonstrated they are not merely a reactive team.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Burkina Faso's display was its calm in the face of a string of extraordinary refereeing decisions, all but one of which went against it. Keba Paul Koulibaly was fortunate to be shown only a yellow card and not red after kicking out at Asamoah Gyan (a baffling decision; if Slim Jdidi, the Tunisian referee, saw the incident, it couldn't have been anything other than red), but other than that all the major controversies fell Ghana's way - a penalty awarded for it, two not given against it, and a goal disallowed. The worst decision of all, the second yellow card (and thus red) shown to Pitroipa for a dive when replays late proved he had been kicked just below the knee. Other teams might have lost their cool but Burkina Faso simply kept playing and, ultimately, had its reward.
"I've tried to change the mental side and also the professionalism in the federation because it starts with this," said Put. "We've spent a lot of time on the training ground, one on one, showing them what I thought was the best for the team. They picked it up - I saw the confidence growing and that's very important. If you work in something in training and see it on the pitch, that's the biggest satisfaction for a coach."
Pitroipa's red card - with four minutes of extra-time remaining - had little impact on the game, although it meant he was not able to take a penalty in the shootout that, but it meant he would have missed the final through suspension. Without both Traore and Pitroipa, Burkina Faso would have been severely blunted in the final, but the decision to rescind Pitroipa's dismissal after Jdidi admitted his error means Burkina can start with its first choice forward line.
Central to that is Aristide Bance. The 6'4" striker with the peroxide mop made his name at Mainz and, after a couple of years in Dubai and then Turkey, he is back in Germany with Augsburg. He plays in a state of seemingly perpetual fury - and you do wonder whether he may be rather more clinical in front of goal if he could just calm down a little - and has frustrated in the past with his inconsistency. Against Ghana in the semifinal, though, he was superb, leading the line with conviction and scoring the equalizer. But for a fine save from Fatuwa Dauda and a goal-line clearance form Harrison Afful, he would have had a hat trick.
Nigeria, looking to end its 19-year African Cup of Nations drought, is a clear favorite for the final. Yet, this is a Burkina Faso side that has a solid defensive shape, a couple of forwards in form and, in the captain Charles Kabore, the most graceful midfielder in the tournament. Its improbable dream is far from impossible.