Burkina Faso coach Paul Put praised his side’s attitude following their last gasp draw with Nigeria on Monday night.
Put’s team were trailing to Emmanuel Emenike’s 23rd minute goal as the full-time whistle approached.
But after a bungled Nigeria attack, Burkina Faso broke upfield and Alain Traoré swept home Wilfried Sanou’s cut back to give the Stallions a dramatic draw.
“It’s never over in football,” beamed a relieved Put after the game in Nelspruit. “The goal against Central African Republic which allowed us to qualify for this competition came in the 96th minute, so we are used to this. But it’s not good for the heart.”
A sentiment Put can share with his Nigerian counterpart Stephen Keshi.
“It’s certainly disappointing,” said 41-year-old Keshi after the match. “You have the three points in your pocket and in the last second to concede a goal is tough. But it’s part of the game.”
Nigeria should have been out of sight well before Traoré’s late intervention. Emineke had given them the perfect platform mid-way through the first half. He showed bravery to muscle between two defenders and finesse to nudge Aide Ideye’s back-heel flick past the advancing goalkeeper Abdoulaye Soulama.
But, although Burkina Faso held their more vaunted opponents at bay, they rarely threatened Vincent Enyeama’s goal. Skipper Moumouni Dagano seemed to have squandered their best chance after 63 minutes.
Burkina Faso surged in belief 15 minutes from time after the expulsion of Efe Ambrose for his second yellow card. Sensing blood, they rampaged forward but were repelled by a defence efficiently marshalled by Nigeria skipper Joseph Yobo.
If only the Nigerian attackers could have replicated their captain’s prowess. John Obi Mikel shot into the heavens when well placed and second-half substitute Ikechukwu Uche spurned two chances with only Soulama to beat.
“It didn’t work out the way I wanted it to,” said the 29-year-old Villareal forward of his attempts on goal. “You have to try things and they didn’t happen. Everyone is upset. You’re 1-0 up and they get a last-minute equaliser. It’s painful but we have to go out and do better in our next game.”
Nigeria, like Zambia, had the chance to refashion the narrative of the tournament. Cape Verde’s opening day draw with hosts South Africa was followed on Sunday by Democratic Republic of Congo’s fightback to claim parity with Ghana.
The big guns have failed again. And it substantiates the burgeoning belief among the putative lesser teams that they possess just as good a chance of ultimate glory as the perennial favourites.
“Our draw against Nigeria feels like a victory,” Put reflected. “It is a surprise to me as Nigeria were the favourites. But I have to keep feet on the ground because our second game against Ethiopia is very important. The players need to relax after such a great effort but they also have to prepare well for Ethiopia.”
With none of the teams boasting an advantage after the opening round of games, Friday’s second slew of matches in Group C will be crucial.
It will be intriguing to survey how the overachieving underdogs Burkina Faso and Ethiopia approach their confrontation and just as fascinating to view the emotional fallout from their first game draws in the clash between Nigeria and Zambia.
Zambia coach Hervé Renard decried his side’s lack of humility during their stalemate with Ethiopia. Keshi rued his young team’s sang froid in front of goal.
If both managers correct the respective failings, Friday afternoon in Nelspruit could well be a battle that will respectively refine or define a generation.