Saido Berahino Believes in Burundi

During the 1990s, many followed the horrors occurring in Rwanda and the lethal civil war between the Tutsi and the Hutu that resulted in the killing of more than 500,000 Tutsi, by the Hutu, for what is known as the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda. Unfortunately, the friction between Hutu and Tutsi wasn't limited just to Rwanda. Another country that suffered from the continuous tension between both ethnic groups might be a bit less famous but shares a very similar story.

Burundi, the non-famous neighbor of Rwanda, was officially freed from Belgian colonialism in 1962 and since that moment on suffered from wars, poverty and the constant tension between its main ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Between 1962, the year of its independence, and 1993, more than 250,000 people were killed in wars between Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi, in what was defined as a genocide by the UN. Eventually, tension led to a total civil war that started in 1993 and ended in 2008, resulting in the death of more than 300,000 during that period. After the UN intervened to resolve the situation, war has ended, and a peace agreement was signed. Lately, in 2015, the current president Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term in office, even though the constitution permits only two terms. His decision led to a failing political coup attempt and severe critic by the international community, regarding the democratic situation of the country.

If you are not convinced yet that Burundi is not the best place on Earth to live in here are some facts for you: Burundi is considered as the "hungriest" country in the world, with more than 80% of the population considered as poor. As of 2015, 1 out of 10 children died before the age of 5. Therefore, it might not be surprising that in 2018, Burundi was ranked last in the world happiness report published by the UN.

With this status as a starting point, and as the lowest ranked team from all teams qualifying to the Africa Cup of Nations this summer, it is quite obvious why Burundi's qualification can be considered as one of the most surprising results in world football in 2019. Moreover, this achievement came after eliminating Gabon, which is ranked 46 places higher than Burundi in the FIFA ranking, on the last day of the qualification phase.

How this was even possible, one might ask himself. One of the answers, like in the case of so many African countries, is that it could not happen without the help of some returning sons who decided to represent the country, although they might have had some other options. One of them is Saido Berahino.

Berahino was born in Burundi but fled to England when he was just 10. When he was 4, his father was killed as a result of the deadly civil war in the country, and his whole family had to flee outside the country. Eventually, Berahino joined his family after receiving a status of political refugee and after no less than a DNA test confirmed that he was the son of his mother. The proof was required since at first Berahino could not locate his family. In all this madness, football was a refuge for little Saido. "It was a huge culture shock because I couldn't speak a word of English and I had to adapt very quickly," admits Berahino, "playing football made it easier for me to settle in and learn the language and I'm lucky I had the talent to get where I am."

Indeed, Berahino's talent led him to star for England at the youth level. Berahino was so good that in 2014 he was voted as the under-21 player of the year by English fans, ahead of Harry Kane. Moreover, he is placed third, only behind Alan Shearer and Francis Jeffers for most goals scored at the English under-21 national team.

Therefore, it is not surprising that five years ago Berahino, while playing for West Bromwich Albion, was considered as one of the future stars of English football. After first emerging to public knowledge due to a winning goal he scored against Manchester United in Old Trafford, which was also his first Premier League goal, at the age of 21. One season later he completely exploded with a season of 20 goals in 45 games, leading to an approximately 15 million pound offer from Tottenham which was declined by West Bromwich.

At that period, Berahino was a legitimate candidate for the English national team, and in November 2014 he was even summoned by Roy Hodgson for matches against Slovenia and Scotland ahead of the UEFA Euro 2016 qualification campaign, but he didn't play in any of the games. Back in those days, it was obvious for Berahino, that although Burundi is his homeland, he wishes to represent England, as quoted in an interview from 2013:

"It's a non-starter. I want to play at the best level with the best players at the best tournaments. Burundi is motherland to me. I will always be a Burundian regardless of what happens, even if I become a successful Premier League player. I will still have the Burundi culture in me. Playing for England is different. They have given me a second chance in life, provided my family with a different type of lifestyle. I feel very, very grateful to what England has done for me and my family. So, when I play for England, I play with passion and excitement, joy, and desire to win."

However, from that pick and following West Bromwich's decline of the offer made by Tottenham, initiated a series of events which led to a sharp drop in Berahino's goal-scoring ability. In fact, for 2.5 years, from February 27th, 2016 to August 28th, 2018, Berahino hasn't scored a single competitive goal. During that period Burundi has approached Berahino and other Burundi-born players, such as Gaël Bigirimana who plays for Hibernian, to come and represent the national team. Eventually, Berahino agreed and even scored on his debut in September 2018 against Gabon in a game that resulted in 1-1. Both Berahino and Bigirimana were welcomed to the presidential palace in October 2018, as a sign of gratitude for their choice and service.

Obviously, like in the case of other African players who had the opportunity to play for a European team, some might be cynical and say that once Berahino understood that he is not good enough for the English national team, he went to represent his motherland, as he calls Burundi. However, there might be something else, in this case, maybe more wholesome. Berahino fled from his homeland after seeing his father killed when he was a small child. He and his family went to seek for a better future, which they found. Berahino's loyalty to England at times was, in his words, a sign of gratitude to the country that gave him a second chance as a person. Maybe, just maybe, Berahino's current choice can be a sign that he starts to believe again in his motherland and its potential, after more than 50 years of misery and misfortune. Maybe Burundi's extraordinary achievement in football and potentially a decent performance in CAF 2019 can be a sign for the whole country that like Berahino, they too deserve a better future and a second chance.