Berahino - From hell to heaven with Burundi

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On March 23, 2019, Saido Berahino’s world went crazy; he had just been part of a Burundi team that qualified to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in the country’s history and for him, that is a day that will forever be etched in his memory.

“It was unbelievable. The stadium went crazy that day after the final whistle when we drew with Gabon. It was a bit nervous at the end when Gabon equalized late, but we held on and the nerves made the celebrations even wilder. The whole city was excited and I don’t think people went to work for two days. It was unbelievable,” Berahino recalls, speaking to CAFOnline.com.

It was a brilliant day for him, and his family.

Just 15 years back, Berahino had fled Burundi on his own at the age of 10 after the death of his father following a civil war. He found his way to England where he was put up in a care home before he could locate his mother and siblings and be re-united with them.

“It was tough, but I think that is what has made me who I am today. Being separated from your family is not something easy especially as a kid,” Berahino stated.

The memories of the civil war are still fresh in his memories, but the joy of bringing excitement to his country overrides all dark memories of the gory days. He has been part of a team that has united Burundi and helped them forget the restlessness brought about by war over the years.

“It gives me great joy to have been part of this team. I can’t put it into words just how much it means to me. I'm proud to be part of history and no one can take that away from me. Now, we have to try and hold our heads high and do our best here and whatever happens, we should be proud of ourselves” Berahino further explains.

Burundi has suffered losses in the two games so far at the competition, 1-0 to Nigeria and Madagascar, but Berahino and his colleagues have been a delight to watch.

The former West Bromwich Albion and now Stoke City forward represented England at the youth level and was eligible to turn out for the senior team, something that never happened. Having grown up in Newtown Birmingham from an early age, England had become a part of him.

“They (senior team) had followed me a lot especially when I was scoring a lot of goals for West Brom but God had his plans. I had a chance to play for them during an official match, but I did not play and from there, I thought of playing for Burundi. It was a good decision because if I played then, I wouldn’t have been here with Burundi at the Africa Cup of Nations,” Berahino stated.

He adds; “It wasn’t a hard decision to make because I was born in Burundi, my family was born in Burundi and I had told my mother that one day, I would want to play for the country of my birth. So for me, this is a dream come true,”

“It wasn’t a hard decision to make because I was born in Burundi, my family was born in Burundi and I had told my mother that one day, I would want to play for the country of my birth. So for me, this is a dream come true,” Saido Berahino

Berahino made his debut for the Burundi national team in their second qualifier away to Gabon where he scored the opening goal in the 38th minute in a 1-1 draw. He went on to play every single match from then on, being a core figure in the team that earned qualification.

For his decision to turn into Burundi colors, the 25-year old has been handed the armband for Burundi’s AFCON campaign, something he says is a humbling feat for him.

“It is a massive honor for me to be given this chance to captain my country and I feel really proud to be doing so. We have worked well as a team for the entire period and I was really surprised at the level of talent in the team when I came in. It was great to come and be part of the journey and now that we are here we have to give our best,” he stated.

“I can’t sit here and say we will win the trophy or we will be in the final. All I will say is that we will take a match at a time. We have been called underdogs from qualification and as players this has motivated us,” Berahino said.

Looking at the future, the striker says they have to now ensure that qualification to Africa’s top football tournament is a more frequent occurrence and he believes they can do it.

“I think we have the team, we have a group of players who are committed to the cause and if we continue sticking together, people will be seeing us here more often. This should help us put our feet in and expect to see us in 2021,” he stated.

Les Hirondelles wrap up their campaign against Guinea on Sunday at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo. With a slim chance on reaching the next stage, Berahino is a satisfied man having shown the world that they are ready for a seat at the 'table of men'.