Aristide Bance shows his worth for Burkina Faso, who book semifinal spot
At a glance, Aristide Bance might resemble a footballing version of Big Bird with his mop of peroxide blond hair and gangly legs. But it would be more accurate to call the 32-year-old a consummate journeyman who has played with 15 clubs in 11 different countries since he went to Lokeren in Belgium more than a decade ago. Two separate stints in the Bundesliga, with Mainz and Augsburg, were the highlights of a career that has since involved clubs in Iran, South Africa and Latvia.
For Burkina Faso, Bance has been a squad regular since debuting in 2003. These days, he's more of an impact player off the bench or a foil to keep opponents busy while younger teammates look to find space. He's blessed with a somewhat clumsy touch, but every now and then, he provides the contribution required of a genuine target.
On Saturday at the African Nations Cup, he came on with a quarter of an hour to play as the Burkinabe were deadlocked with Tunisia in Libreville in the first of the quarterfinals. His iconic status in his home county meant the traveling legion of Burkinabe fans in the stadium let out a giant roar when he shed his warm-up kit and put on his jersey. Another whoop of delight followed once he was brought on.
His first touch rolled away off his chest and was cleared; the second, four minutes after entering the contest, was a clever, low free kick that broke the Tunisia wall and went wide of the goalkeeper, into the corner of the net. It was followed quickly by another as Burkina Faso went on to a 2-0 victory and became the first side to book a semifinal spot. (Cameroon would join them later in the day, defeating Senegal on penalties.)
"He can make a difference when he comes on with just a touch or as we saw today with a free kick," teammate Abdoul Razak Traore said after the match. "He's a powerful player when he comes on, and he put us through [to the next round] today. He is an important player for us. The coach told us the bench was going to win the game for us."
For Bance, Saturday's victory comes close to a career highlight.
"We really sweated for the jersey, the whole team had a very good game. We are a team, everyone is the same. You can be a substitute, get a chance to come on the pitch and make a difference," he said in the post-match scrum.
"The country is proud of us tonight. There are 20 million Burkinabe behind us, so that puts a lot of pressure on us. We do not want to disappoint them, but it's not easy to manage the expectation. When I scored, I thought immediately of the people celebrating back home.
"It's true I've picked up a lot of experience in my career, but I've put in the work, too. I've had a career where I've been at clubs where I've not had chances, where I haven't been paid, but every time I am called up with the national team it is a pleasurable stay.
"We have a chance now, we really do," Bance continued. "We have a big opportunity, better than 2013. We have a better team.
Four years ago, Bance was in the Burkinabe squad that sensationally and unexpectedly made their way through to the final in South Africa.
"We don't want to start thinking that far ahead, but we always want to go one better than we did," Traore added. "It's pretty much the same team."
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.