Nigeria's opponents in final prove that the continent's middle-ranking teams can take on and beat Africa's best
To the question of where African football is progressing, there are two answers. On the one hand, it has stagnated, perhaps even gone backwards: we are no closer to an African team winning the World Cup now than we were when Cameroon reached the quarter-finals in 1990 (yes, Ghana were within a Luis Suárez handball and an Asamoah Gyan missed penalty of becoming the first African side to reach a semi-final, but they would also have gone out in the first round had an Australian handball with two minutes of their final group game remaining been punished and Serbia converted the penalty; stuff happens).
And yet in an another way it has improved immeasurably: the top may not have progressed but the middle certainly has and Mali, Angola, Togo and Cape Verde – even Gabon and Sudan, although neither qualified for this Cup of Nations – are all teams worthy of respect, capable of taking on the best their continent has to offer. The pyramid of talent may not have got higher, but it has got broader.
"You can no longer differentiate so much between which teams are better," said the Nigeria coach, Stephen Keshi, earlier in the tournament. "In the old days you could predict how many goals one team was going to score against the other but now you don't know what is going to happen. You might think one side will win but you don't know. I think this is wonderful for African football. The competition is so tight: you look at the likes of Ethiopia and Cape Verde and some of the other countries. I am very impressed with their performances and the standard they are reaching."
Burkina Faso, the team Nigeria face in Sunday's final, are the latest example of that. Their story does not have the tragic dimensions of Zambia last year, returning to Libreville 19 years after the air crash there that killed 18 of their players to win with the 18th penalty in the shootout, but it is a fairytale nonetheless.
As a column by Le Fou in Le Pays, the Ouagadougou-based national, put it: "Anyone who does not believe in miracles is not a realist." He went on to complain about how "wild" fans had been in their celebrations, keeping him up all night with their noise, which gives some indication of what the reaction has been back in Burkina Faso.
When the Stallions left Ouagadougou, their goal was to win one game, something they hadn't done since hosting the tournament in 1998, when victories over Algeria and Guinea took them through to a quarter-final against Tunisia. They won that on penalties before going out to the eventual champions Egypt in the semi-final. Burkina Faso then led DR Congo 4-1 in the third-placed play-off with four minutes remaining, only to concede three times and lose on penalties.
In fact, in 26 previous matches at the finals, Burkina Faso had won only two games, drawing six and losing 18. Away from home soil, they had gathered four points from a possible 60. Last year, in Equatorial Guinea, having been extremely fortunate to have been allowed to compete after fielding an ineligible player in a qualifier against Namibia, Burkina Faso were a shambles and lost all three matches.
Whether Paul Put can truly regain redemption in Africa for his involvement in the Ye Zheyun match-fixing scandal in Belgium is debatable, but what cannot be doubted is the quality of the job he has done since leaving Europe, first with Gambia and then with Burkina Faso.
Their captain, Charles Kaboré, paid immediate tribute to Put after the semi-final victory over Ghana, while there was surely significance in the way Aristide Bancé raced to the touchline to hug his coach after Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu had seen the decisive penalty in the shootout saved.
There is a wonderful photograph of the two, one peroxide blond, the other with his sandy hair bleached by the sun, both with mouths wide in triumph, arms outstretched like long-lost lovers, about to embrace on the painted sand of the Mbombela as the plague of moths that blighted the stadium flit around them, illuminated in the floodlights like an eddy of snow. ("Is it still mothing? I hadn't noticed …" as Andie MacDowell might say in the unlikely event she is called upon to play the Belgian in a biopic, Four Draws and A Single Win in Normal Time).
To quibble that Burkina Faso progressed thanks to draws is slightly to miss the point. They more than held their own against Nigeria in the opener and probably deserved the injury-time equaliser that Alain Traoré scored in the final moments. They overcame the dismissal of their goalkeeper Abdoulaye Soulama with the score at 1-0 to pick off Ethiopia on the break and win 4-0, becoming the only side in eight games to manage more than a single goal on the Mbombela pitch – the first sign that adversity becomes them. Needing a draw to progress, they played calm, containing football to force a 0-0 in their final group game against Zambia. "There was more pepper than salt in the soup today," said Put, meaningfully, after that game.
They lost Traoré to a thigh injury in that match but Bancé, while lacking Traoré's finishing, has stepped in and done an admirable job of leading the line, with Jonathan Pitroipa providing creativity from wide. It was Pitroipa who headed the winner in extra time after a cagey quarter-final against Togo and he was superb again in the thrilling semi against Ghana. Put had spoken of his side's growing maturity and there was something highly impressive about the way they overcame not merely the setback of going behind but also a string of baffling refereeing decisions going against them (although those who insist that the Tunisian referee Slim Jdidi was biased against Burkina Faso may like to consider why he showed a yellow rather than a red card to Keba Paul Koulibaly when he kicked out at Gyan). On another day they would have had two penalties, Ghana would not have had theirs, and Prejuce Nakoulma's late goal would not have been ruled out for some banal jostling with Kwadwo Asamoah.
And, most crucially of all, Pitroipa would not have been sent off with four minutes remaining after collecting a second yellow card for a supposed dive when he was clearly whacked across the knees by John Boye. To have been without him as well as the injured Traoré for Sunday's final would be a severe blow, but Jdidi admitted on Friday morning that he had made a mistake and, as expected, the Confederation of African Football overturned the forward's suspension at a meeting on Friday afternoon.
"If I had lost it or lost my temper I think all my team-mates would have followed me," said Kaboré. "It was my responsibility to keep calm." He did and so did his team-mates. It was Ghana who panicked in the penalty shootout, Isaac Vorsah and Emmanuel Clottey both dragging their shots wide of the target, opening the way for the Stallions to reach an entirely unexpected final.
Nigeria, riding a wave of new-found self-belief, are the most formidable test yet, but Burkina Faso have overcome every obstacle so far. Hervé Renard, the Zambia coach, suggested CAF did not want his side representing Africa at this summer's Confederations Cup, but presumably replacing them with Burkina Faso was not part of the plan. The broadening of the pyramid may be a positive for Africa in the long run, but anybody who ends up with tickets for Burkina Faso against Tahiti in Belo Horizonte on 17 June is unlikely to agree.
• This article was updated on 8 February 2013 to reflect the successful outcome of Burkina Faso's appeal against the red card shown to Jonathan Pitroipa