For a long time it wasn’t pretty, but with this Senegal side it rarely is. Not that they will mind. Senegal are the great underachievers of the Africa Cup of Nations and if they beat Cameroon or Egypt on Sunday to lift the trophy for the first time, nobody will much care how they did it. Aliou Cissé’s job is not to entertain but to win.
This was a game that followed the classic Cissé pattern: rugged solidity to start, gradually squeezing the opponent into mistakes before late strikes: eight of the nine goals Senegal have scored in Cameroon have come after the hour. The breakthrough here came on 70 minutes, a corner dropping in the box for the Paris Saint‑Germain centre-back Abdou Diallo to hook in. The second was knocked in by Idrissa Gueye after Sadio Mané had outmuscled Issa Kaboré before cutting the ball back. Mané then got the decisive third with a deft finish on the break.
In truth, they could easily have had the lead before half-time. Twice the Ethiopian referee Bamlak Tessema awarded Senegal penalties and twice overturned them after VAR reviews. First Hervé Koffi, the Burkinabé keeper, clattered into Cheikhou Kouyaté but the video showed his fist had – just – made contact with the ball before the Palace midfielder’s skull. Koffi, though, ended up being taken off on a stretcher.
Given how strict the interpretation of handball in this tournament has been, the second decision was less clear-cut: Idrissa Gueye’s shot did strike the elbow of the central defender Edmond Tapsoba, but it was by his side as he turned away. Zimbabwe, who conceded a similar penalty late on against Senegal in their first game, may have looked on with surprise.
But this was not just about events on the pitch. For the Burkinabé players, perhaps, their anthem had additional significance on Wednesday night. It was written by the former president Thomas Sankara, who changed the name of the country from Upper Volta in 1984 and is widely regarded as the father of the nation. He was assassinated in 1987 during a coup; last year, his former deputy Blaise Compaoré, who succeeded him as president, was put on trial in absentia for his murder. Since the military coup on 23 January, though, all judicial proceedings have halted.
The players had watched the news of the coup on a television in their hotel in Garoua. A fortnight earlier, the deposed president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré had sent them a good luck message. Lieutenant‑Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, the leader of the coup, spoke to the manager, Kamou Malo, himself a former police chief.
The curfew that the military had imposed in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, having been ignored in the celebrations after the quarter-final win against Tunisia, was lifted for this match. “The events are extra motivation for us,” Malo said, “because we know that whatever we do will be remembered by our people.”
Even without that context, this is an achievement that deserves to be remembered. This was Burkina Faso’s third semi-final in nine years, a remarkable statistic for a nation that had previously only once progressed beyond the group stage – and that on home soil. This is a fine young squad, and the way it fought on to pull one back though Ibrahim Blati Touré’s kneed volley spoke of their character. There is no reason this squad could not go even further in the next few years.
This Senegal squad, though, is concerned only about the here and now. Sunday is their second successive final, their third in total, and they will not have many better chances finally to win their first Cup of Nations than with this group of players and this most pragmatic of managers.