The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is upon us, and started with host nation Egypt kicking things off against Zimbabwe. While much of the attention and scrutiny will be on the hosts as well as other established football powers like Nigeria, Morocco and Cameroon, the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams has opened the door to some emerging sides. One of the countries making their AFCON debut is Burundi.
Since the AFCON’s beginnings in the 1950s, Burundi have not even entered the majority of tournaments but have at least taken part in the qualifiers since 2000. So this is completely new territory for them but they will hope to do more than simply make up the numbers, especially as 16 of the 24 teams will progress to the knock-out stage. They are in a group with heavyweights Nigeria (their first match on Saturday) but should harbour hope of getting results against Guinea and fellow debutants Madagascar. They are a team of few household names and only a handful play their club football in Europe but one who could be their x-factor is controversial forward Saido Berahino.
If you mention the name Saido Berahino in England, the connotations are almost entirely negative. The general consensus is that he is a wasted talent, a mercenary, ill-disciplined, and an all-round bad role model. But his story is more layered than these simple assertions, and he will hope to perform better away from the glare of the British media. Saido was born and raised in Burundi but his father was killed in the Civil War and he fled to England alone at the age of 10 where he eventually reunited with the rest of his family. It was his footballing ability which enabled him to integrate though and he soon found himself take on in the youth ranks of West Bromwich Albion where he would become a first team player by 2013. His exploits as a young player saw him earn call ups for England at age-group level and he was being tipped by many for future stardom.
Unfortunately, his time in England has since been marred by controversy and difficulty both within and outside of football. This has included threatening to go on strike to force a move away from West Brom, gaining weight, feelings of depression, reportedly failing a drug test, and multiple convictions of drink-driving. His most recent club, Stoke City, have just terminated his contract, making him a free agent. Having switched international allegiance to the country of his birth, AFCON 2019 represents not just a chance for the 25 year old to rediscover his potential in a lower-pressure environment, but a chance to put himself in the shop window for a perspective club that just might turn his career around.
Of course, this experience will be about more than just how Berahino performs. This is Burundi’s chance to put themselves on the footballing map. Hibernian player Gael Bigirimana (who also fled Burundi as a boy) has remarked that people in Europe in general haven’t heard of the place. In an interview with FIFA, he has claimed that the success of the national team has brought hope to its people and given them something to look forward to after years of conflict. He has compared it to when the Ivory Coast team qualified for the first World Cup and asked their warring factions to lay down their weapons and come together. As far as he is concerned, Burundi is a small nation without the resources of many of their rivals, but as underdogs they have nothing to lose; ‘we’re just going to go and be fearless’.
Burundi are not likely to be involved in the latter stages of AFCON 2019, they might not even win a game, but one can argue that they have already achieved a significant win by being here. They will have spirit, they will have motivation, and in Berahino, a player with the talent that if channeled in the right way could make The Swallows a revelation.
Featured image | Saido Berahino playing for West Bromwich Albion in 2014 | wikimedia commons
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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