Burkina Faso hosts Uganda tomorrow at Ouagadougou’s Stade du 4 Août 1983, with qualification for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations on the line. For members and staff of Les Étalons, though, the match represents more than just the next step in the march toward Gabon.
Saturday’s home match is the first for Burkina’s national team since January’s Al Qaeda takeover of a Ouagadougou hotel, which saw hundreds taken hostage and 30 killed as insurgent violence—previously restricted to Mali—seeped south into the heart of one of the world’s poorest countries. It’s also the first national team appearance in Ouagadougou under the nation’s new democratically-elected president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who took office in late December after the country deposed its dictator of 27 years, Blaise Compaoré, and trudged through an interim military junta.
Kaboré will be in attendance at Stade du 4 Août for tomorrow’s match, and when I spoke today with Burkinabé national team staff and players, they expressed a great deal of pride and anticipation for the opportunity to play in front of him. The team met with Kaboré yesterday, showing their appreciation with a signed jersey, before retiring to the heavily-secured hotel that is housing them for the qualifier. (The team used to stay at Ouagadougou’s Joly Hôtel, until it was attacked during the popular insurrection in 2014 by protestors who believed it was owned by Blaise Compaoré’s wife.)
Fédération Burkinabé de Football general secretary Bertrand Kaboré told me the match was an opportunity for the country to unify in an event that sheds the divisive political and ethnic barriers. To this end, even the traditional banners that hang in support of individual players inside the stadium won’t appear at tomorrow’s match.
Still, it’s tough to ignore the presence of Bertrand Traoré, the most visible Burkinabé player worldwide. Traoré, who plays for Chelsea, has made the most of his limited appearances of late—last month becoming the first player from Burkina Faso to score in the EPL, and scoring again against Stoke City earlier this month. (He’s also found the net twice for the Blues in FA Cup competition.) Both Kaboré and Burkina Faso midfielder Adama Guira told me Traoré’s return to the national squad was important for the team’s growth and visibility worldwide.
Guira, who plays for Danish top-division side SønderjyskE, said the internationally-televised ACON qualifiers serve an important role in helping more young Burkinabé players earn lucrative international club contracts. Indeed, much of the conversation between players at the Ouagadougou hotel where the team prepared for tomorrow’s match seemed to center on how many agents and scouts would be watching. A surprising number suggested that their professional futures may lie in the United States, though Guira shrugged off U.S. pro soccer as being “a few years away” from being able to compete with European leagues.
Overall, both Burkina Faso national team staff and players projected a positive outlook on both tomorrow’s match and the future for soccer in that country despite the turmoil. “We need buses, we need cars, and we need stadiums,” Kaboré told me, “but we have the young players. We have the technique to win.”