Paul Put - the Belgian alchemist turning Burkina Faso into gold
Belgian coach Paul Put has brought Burkina Fasao through to the Africa Cup of Nations, reversing his own fortunes and those of his adopted team.
Roaming around the Kruger National Park just outside Nelspruit are the Big Five - elephants, lions, buffaloes, rhinoceros and leopards. Myriad other species cruise the huge expanse of scraggy bush and verdant plains but only a handful wow the crowds.
Apt then that Burkina Faso and Nigeria have emerged from Nelspruit’s Group C to contest the final on Sunday in Joahnnesburg.
Nigeria are one of the biggest animals on the continent. Their opponents have emerged from the undergrowth but will they be slaughtered?
Logic says yes.
But the law of the jungle fails to operate at critical moments especially at the Cup of Nations.
Last year’s final in Libreville was an unruly vignette. Hervé Renard’s Zambia persistently refused to yield before the might of Côte D’Ivoire and they scampered off to Lusaka with the prize. Paul Put’s Burkina Faso are a game away from repeating such a feat.
When the draw for the 29th jamboree was made in Durban late last year, the rational thinking saw defending champions Zambia and Nigeria as the top two from a group also comprising Ethiopia and Burkina Faso.
Ethiopia , though playing some neat football under Sewnet Bishaw, would be overawed, it was thought, in the country’s first Cup of Nations for 31 years. Burkina Faso ’s squad of 2012 was so abject it failed to win any games.
It would all be so straightforward that pundits didn’t even bother to add the sobriquet "Group of Death". That marketing gimmick went to Group D.
But Burkina Faso was led by Paulo Duarte in 2012. Put and 2013 was an altogether different brand.
In the first game Burkina Faso scooped a draw against a self-harming Nigeria, destroyed an inflated Ethiopia and then, in the final Group C game, eked out a 0-0 with Zambia by cloning their attitude of 2012. Renard eventually conceded his team failed to show the humility that had catapulted it to greatness.
By contrast Put, with an alchemist’s eye, spotted the trick.
The meek, with the right ingredients, can inherit the earth. The squad in Nelspruit has been shown videos of putative overachievers; Greece in 2004 on their way past France and Portugal to the European title. Chelsea in last season’s Uefa Champions League outwitting the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich. And, of course, Zambia .
Just before the quarter-final against Togo Put said, “You have to find stories that you believe and that the players believe and, of course, that the players believe you believe.”
In truth it’s still very hard to comprehend how Chelsea won last year. Greece haven’t been electrifying since their triumph in that European championship and Zambia were the first defending champions since Algeria in 1992 to fall after the group stages.
Clearly the players have bought into Put’s patter. The click was palpable. Leading 1-0 against Ethiopia, Burkina Faso were reduced to 10 men with just over 20 minutes to go.
Beleaguered, Put pursued the counterintuitive. He left attackers Alain Traoré and Jonathan Pitroipa up front and pushed skipper Charles Kaboré, a defensive midfielder by trade, further forward. Djakarida Koné would play behind his captain to guard the defence.
Kaboré was the epitome of the angle-hungry fantasista as Burkina Faso scored three goals on counter-attacks of savage simplicity.
“It worked perfectly wonderful,” Put smiled after the game. He and his team had outshone the side that had overshadowed Zambia in the opening round of Group C games.
Following the penalty shoot-out win over Ghana in the semi-final, Kaboré cracked in the post-match press conference.
“Frankly, the only person who believed in us was the coach,” he said. “He’s the only one who’s said we could go to the final. We, the players, were always going to fight on the field for our country, for our pride.”
Turning to the white-haired man sitting beside him, Kaboré said, “I want to take this opportunity on behalf of all the players to pay tribute to him for everything he’s brought to us and the confidence he’s given us to get us to this point.”
One final won. One to win.
While it was never quite a shotgun wedding, Put and Burkina Faso are a confluence of catastrophes.
Back in 2008, Put was suspended for three years after being implicated in a rigging scandal while in charge of the Belgian first division side Lierse.
During his time at the tournament in South Africa, the 56-year-old has spoken about the threats against him and his family.
"I was forced into it,” he recalls. “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."
As Fifa never banned him he packed his bags. Gambia was his first port of call for just over two years before taking over last March at a Burkina Faso side that had performed miserably in the 2012 Cup of Nations.
Player after player in the Burkina Faso squad recounts the trauma of their poor standards during last year’s campaign. Put’s brief excursions into his own personal despair solder the alignment. Put has merely funnelled disappointment and desire for redemption into an accessible narrative for his team as much for himself.
Tactically and spiritually, he’s playing a blinder. Put has been at pains to tell his squad that they’ve had a successful tournament because they’ve surpassed last year’s fiasco. Yet he’s urged them before every match to seize the chance to make history. They've processed the paradox and how they’ve obliged!
Togo vanquished in extra-time and Ghana overcome despite the curious refereeing of the since suspended Slim Jedidi.
It’s been a quirky, happily homespun journey after a slough of despond. Put and his players have certainly restored their reputations. Victory won’t transform them them into one of Africa's prized beasts, Zambia can vouch for that. Defeat will definitely hurt but they’ll have pride.
And they’ll be big in Burkina Faso .