Burkina Faso’s Tapsoba hoping for country’s first Africa Cup title after years of near misses

AP , Tuesday 16 Jan 2024

Burkina Faso is bidding for its first Africa Cup of Nations title after one final and two semifinal appearances since 2013.

Abdoul-Fessal Tapsoba
File Photo: Cape Verde s Kenny Rocha in action with Burkina Faso s Abdoul-Fessal Tapsoba. AFP

Thanks to his assured cool-headed performances, Edmond Tapsoba finished on the team of the tournament when Burkina Faso was only stopped by eventual winner Senegal in the semifinals two years ago.

The central defender says the Burkinabè have grown stronger in the meantime, with a good chance of finally clinching the title — at the 13th attempt — in neighboring Ivory Coast.

“We have improved in every part of the pitch, so I can say, if we continue to work hard like this, we can go further than the last tournament,” Tapsoba told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

Burkina Faso opens its Africa Cup campaign against Mauritania in Bouaké on Tuesday, four days before it faces one of the tournament favorites in Algeria, before its final game in Group D against Angola in Yamoussoukro on Jan. 23. Only the top two in the group are assured of progress.

“It’s a tough group. We already played Algeria in World Cup qualification last year. We know they’ve good players and a good team,” said Tapsoba, who also expects a strong challenge from Morocco, Senegal and host nation Ivory Coast. “They will play at home so they will be more dangerous.”

Tapsoba arrives in arguably the form of his life after helping Bayer Leverkusen go top of the Bundesliga before the league’s winter break. Decisive in defense with his speed and strength, Tapsoba also excels going forward, with his precise passing and buildup play especially valued by Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso.

“Every day he tells us the best defense is the best attack,” Tapsoba said of Alonso, for whom he has played nearly every competitive game this season.

Leverkusen has the best defense in the Bundesliga, while only Bayern Munich has scored more goals. Tapsoba feels he himself has improved as a player since the Spanish coach took charge just over a year ago. And he wants to pass that on.

“I’m a little bit like an old player for Burkina because we have a new generation. So, I’m trying to advise my younger brothers because there are some players that are younger than me,” said the 24-year-old Tapsoba, who said he would pass on Alonso’s “best advice” to his national teammates.

Tapsoba grew up playing soccer on the dusty roads of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, and didn’t get his first pair of boots till he joined local team Salitas aged 13.

“I started to believe I could be a football player,” Tapsoba said. “It was my dad who gave me my first shoes ... you can play with these shoes for one year, they get cut, you have to try and repair them yourself. It was not easy.”

Tapsoba and other foreign-based Burkinabè have since tried making it easier for their young successors back home by lobbying manufacturers to make gear available.

“We have contacts with Puma, Adidas, so we are trying to give them shoes, but the pitches are still the same and it’s hard to play there,” he said. “We are trying to see what we can do to push them to realize their dreams.”

Tapsoba, so accomplished in defense it seems he must always have played here, actually started as a forward and gradually worked his way back.

“Hopefully I don’t go back ... to a goalkeeper,” he joked.

From Salitas, Tapsoba graduated to Union Sportive de Ouagadougou before a move to Portugal in 2017. He joined Leixões, then Vitória de Guimarães, where his displays in the first division with four goals in 16 games caught Leverkusen’s attention.

He joined the German team in January 2020 for a reported fee of 20 million euros ($22 million) and impressed then-coach Peter Bosz enough to become a regular starter by the end of the season. Tapsoba never looked back after making 22 appearances across all competitions in his first half-season at Leverkusen. He has since scored eight goals in 159 appearances.

When he’s not playing, Tapsoba says he likes to sleep. But now all Tapsoba’s attention is on the Africa Cup and the tantalizing prospect of claiming the first title for “The Stallions.”

“It means everything. Because you know that right now Burkina Faso is not like a safe country. We have some trouble with war and everything,” he said. “But if we have a game and we win, it gives joy to everybody, even the soldiers. That’s the thing. They can celebrate, even for some hours, and forget the sad part ... This African Cup is something special for us.”

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