Nelspruit — Burkina Faso coach Paul Put paid tribute to his players after they qualified for the last eight of the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 1998.
The Stallions drew 0-0 with defending champions Zambia at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit on Tuesday night to take Group C. Nigeria finished second thanks to their 2-0 victory over Ethiopia.
Zambia are out, despite being undefeated in their three matches. They're the first title-holders to be eliminated at the group stage since Algeria in 1992.
"It was a victory for us tactically and a victory for us because we qualified for the second round," says 56-year-old Put. "I have to thank all my players because they were very disciplined. They played very compact."
Put admits his training sessions before the clash against Zambia had been defence orientated. "We knew Zambia's tactic was to attack as they had to win. We concentrated on the shapes between the defenders and the midfield. It was important for us to win any second balls from knockdowns and the like. We did that very well. I'm happy for players because they deserve it."
Progress to the last eight comes a year after Burkina Faso's squad returned home in ignominy. They lost all three group stage games and the coach Paulo Duarte was dismissed for the fiasco.
Put has inspired a transformation.
"It wasn't pretty against Zambia," he admits. "But sometimes in football you have to be realistic. The most important thing was qualification. We gave everything. We defended well and we didn't offer them too many chances."
True. Though Zambia's Collins Mbesuma really should have given the champions the lead after 17 minutes. Instead he shot tamely at goalkeeper Diakité Daouda.
Next up for the west Africans is either Tunisia or Togo. They play on Wednesday night in Nelspruit.
In the prelude to their quarter-final, the medical staff will be working diligently on Alain Traoré's recuperation. The 24-year-old left the Zambia clash after eight minutes. He was stretchered off holding an ice-pack to his left thigh. He was replaced by Aristide Bance.
Traoré has been the revelation of the tournament scoring three goals in the two matches preceding the injury.
"Losing Alain was a blow to our game plan against Zambia," says Put. "We'll try and get him ready for the next match if we can."
Traoré's speed and dynamism in tandem with Jonathan Pitroipa savaged the Ethiopian defence in the 4-0 rout in the second game in Group C. His departure could be crucial. However, Put says he prefers to concentrate on the positive repercussions of the stalemate against Zambia.
"What the players have done is a huge achievement," beams the Belgian. "When Burkina Faso reached the semi-final in 1998, that was as hosts. Our first target was to do better than other Cup of Nations campaigns. We've done that by winning one game and drawing two matches."
Skipper Charles Kaboré was at the heart of the doughty defending. The Marseille midfielder said it was a tough game. "Zambia are a great team and I've got nothing but respect for what they've done. In the match we had to stay tight. We did that well and we fought for each other.
"Zambia attacked as we expected them to and we managed to push them back. Credit has to go to the technical and coaching staff for all the effort that they've made. We've got lots of work to do before the next game."
Victory in that match would allow Kaboré and his comrades to emulate the 1998 team. However the pressure on the side will only mount in the countdown to Sunday in Nelspruit.
Put says his side will have the benefit of remaining in Nelspruit, having played all their Group C matches in the folksy city.
There are also signs, he claims, of increasing maturity. "There were two motivations for our team. We were very close to qualifying and we were up against the defending champions. I threw down the gauntlet. I told them they had the chance to write history and that this chance might never happen again. They picked it up."