Buoyant Burkina Faso hope to make history facing Goliath Ghana
On the eve of one of his biggest moments leading a team, Burkina Faso coach Paul Put was wrenched back into the nightmare that overshadowed his life nearly a decade ago.
The Belgian spoke of the threats against him and his family as he reacted to Monday’s revelations that European police had discovered a criminal network targeting hundreds of matches.
"Match-fixing has always existed in football," says Put, who was suspended for three years after being implicated in a rigging scandal while in charge of the Belgian first division side Lierse.
"For sure football has a bigger problem than it realises. Let's be honest, if it is said to be happening at Champions League level it's widespread but it's not a new thing. A lot of big international players are involved in match fixing.
"But I think Fifa are trying hard to tackle it, it will be difficult but I think you can get rid of it. Look at what cycling is doing with more and more effective doping controls. So, yes, I think it is possible to stop it in football."
Put's rare disclosure about the brush with corruption that led him to flee Belgium for Africa came as he prepared his Stallions side for Wednesday’s semi-final clash with Ghana at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit.
Recalling the episode in his homeland, he says he was caught up in an epidemic that had festered across the national game.
"The whole of Belgian football was sick at that time," he adds. "I was threatened by the mafia, my children were threatened, the mafia threatened me with weapons and things like that so it's not nice to talk about these things but this is the reality.
"I was forced into it. But fixing is a big word. At that time Belgian football was in a bad way. There was no hope, no money. It's not that I was involved in match-fixing, not at all, but it's been portrayed like that in the media.
"And remember, I was just the coach. I had to listen to people above me and the players, as well. I was made the scapegoat but other teams were doing the same, not only Lierse."
Put points out that Fifa never banned him.
"I was banned for three years in Belgium, without any reason," he said. "But as Fifa said I could work elsewhere we didn't make any trouble in Belgium ."
His suspension led him to Africa, where he coached Gambia for just over two years before taking over last year at Burkina Faso.
The side which failed to win a game at the 2012 tournament now stands on the verge of making history.
Back in 1998, the Frenchman Philippe Troussier took them to the semi-finals. But they started as hosts and didn’t have to go through the qualifying rounds. Put’s achievement with the Burkina Faso team is all the more remarkable given his own ravaged hinterland.
“We came here hoping to get good results and we’ve been doing that,” he tells RFI. “Now we have just two games left.”
Burkina Faso will have a slight advantage going into the game against the Black Stars. They’ve played four times on the much criticised Nelspruit pitch while the Ghana side was refused permission to even train on it ahead of the clash.
Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah was at his diplomatic best when questioned about the organisers’ decisions.
“When we get to look at it we may have to change our tactical play or individuals to cope with the situation,” he said.
“We have similar and in fact much worse pitches in Ghana and we do play on them. But once we get to Mbombela, we’ll get the feeling of the place and adapt to it to make sure we perform to the level needed.”
And that standard will have to be high against a buoyant Burkina Faso team. Put says his side will be at a disadvantage too. Ghana played their quarter-final match against Cape Verde on Saturday and won within 90 minutes.
Burkina Faso ’s last eight tie against Togo was on Sunday and it went into extra time.
“From the level of recuperation one day is a lot,” says Put. “We’ve been playing a lot of games. We played 10 against 11 in the Ethiopia game and we’ve played extra time too. It’s getting hard.”
But he says he’s optimistic for the clash against Ghana.
“I see my team growing,” he purrs. “I see them growing in maturity and that’s also important in a tournament.
“I told them when we left home that it is important to be defensively solid and that when you create a chance to finish. Up until now they’ve been good by only letting in one goal. That’s good for the confidence and the future.”
Whether Put will be part of that remains to be seen. His spectacular achievements with the Stallions will have put clubs on alert.
"My ambition now is to be in charge of a big team in a big country,” he says. “I want
to prove something again."
Reaching an Africa Cup of Nations final at the expense of one of the continent’s biggest fishes would be a huge advertisement.