The Eastern African nation of Burundi is one of the most underdeveloped countries on the planet. Its progress has been hacked at by horrific violence, ethnic division and government corruption over many decades.
It’s ranked as the poorest country in the world by Global Finance Magazine and found to be the unhappiest country in the world by the UN’s World Happiness Report. Around 80 percent of its population lives in poverty, with 90 percent of the working population working in agriculture. Not too long ago, coming out of Burundi alive was an achievement in itself, let alone emerging as a professional footballer.
Saido Berahino was born in Bujumbura, then Burundi’s capital, in August 1993. The nation, as it had been for some time, was split by animosity between two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis. Three months after Berahino’s birth, pro-Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye was murdered by Tutsis, sparking a fierce backlash from the government.
The following year, new pro-Hutu president Sylvestre Ntibantunganya was killed in neighbouring Rwanda alongside Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana when their plane was shot down by a pro-Tutsi group. The event sparked the mass genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, with the bloodshed spilling over into Burundi, where civil war was raging.
“You’d see bodies on the street covered up, little kids. You’d see bullet shells on the floor in the streets,” Berahino told Channel 4 in 2014. During the civil war, Berahino’s father was one of an estimated 300,000 people killed. Six years after his father’s death, Berahino fled to the UK at the age of ten, separated from his mother and sisters on arrival.
His mother was eventually traced and the pair were only reunited in Birmingham once DNA tests had confirmed their relation. When he landed on British soil, Berahino knew no English, only French and Swahili, the language he continues to speak to his mother in. Skilled in several sports, the youngster started to stand out at school and, above all, on the football pitch.
Just a year after leaving Burundi, he was invited to join West Brom’s School of Excellence at under-12 level. The innocent Manchester United fan didn’t quite know what to think of it. “I used to play for my local team, and the manager told me I’d been sent to West Brom for a trial. At the time I didn’t really know who they were, because I didn’t know the English teams apart from the big four,” Berahino told FourFourTwo in 2010.
He’d always been a striker but was, in his own words, “not pacy, but powerful and with good technique.” As is often the way in youth football, the attention always draws to those making a telling impact in front of goal.
“He improved year after year, we will always remember him scoring four goals for the Under-15s in a game up at Liverpool. All the other academy teams would always talk about Saido after games,” Steve Hopcroft, head of academy recruitment at West Brom, told the Telegraph in 2014.
At the age of 18, Berahino was offered his first professional contract by the Baggies and called up to train with the first team by Roy Hodgson. He didn’t make his senior debut for the club until after a couple of eye-catching loan spells at Northampton and Brentford in Leagues 2 and 1 respectively. During his time in west London, Berahino never quite saw eye to eye with boss Uwe Rösler.
Nevertheless, when he returned to the Hawthorns in the summer of 2012, Hodgson was gone and Steve Clarke was now the man to impress. The new head coach handed Berahino his West Brom bow in the League Cup against Yeovil but, with Romelu Lukaku joining from Chelsea, another loan was laid out.
Championship side Peterborough snapped up the 20-year-old and, if it wasn’t for a knee injury midway through the campaign, his goals may well have helped them avoid relegation. However, with Lukaku heading back to Stamford Bridge and Peter Odemwingie leaving for Cardiff, a slot opened up in Clarke’s squad ahead of the 2013/14 season.
Having netted a hat-trick against Newport in the League Cup second round, it wasn’t just the West Brom coach who wanted to see a bit more of this exciting forward. Berahino was included in Gareth Southgate’s first squad as England under-21 boss and scored on his debut in a 1-0 win over Moldova.
If his reputation wasn’t already on a rapid rise, it was about to soar. Berahino’s first Premier League goal came against reigning champions, Manchester United, at Old Trafford. It was the winner, too – a ping into the bottom corner with his weaker left foot from the edge of the box. David de Gea stood no chance.
The striker’s displays in the top flight would earn him further under-21 call-ups, with the question of international allegiance not an issue for the Bujumbura-born prodigy. “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,” he told the Telegraph at the time.
“Playing for England is totally 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 have done for me and my family. So, when I play for England, I play with passion and excitement, joy and desire to win.’’
By then, he had already represented the Three Lions at every age-group, from under-16 to under-20, and was becoming a central figure in Southgate’s side. After scoring the first of a double against Finland at Stadium MK in November, Berahino raised his shirt to reveal a touching message. “RIP, Love U Dad,” it read. A poignant moment that proved Burundi was very much still on his mind and in his heart, while still doing his job for another nation.
At the halfway point of his first season in the big time, there were some who strained as far as World Cup selection the following summer. Despite having a major say in West Brom’s survival success towards the end of the campaign, there was no place for Berahino on the plane to Brazil.
Back in West Bromwich, Pepe Mel made way for Alan Irvine, who brought in Brown Ideye from Dynamo Kyiv to bolster his attacking options. Even with his added competition for places, Berahino’s early-season form saw his spot up front untouchable. Crystal Palace and Burnley fell victim to his prolific finishing as he began to perfect his poaching game. One-touch finishes, mostly from inside the penalty area, became a pillar of his play.
So did penalties, with one coming in the form of an equaliser at Anfield during a 2-1 defeat. Transfer gossip saw Berahino linked with a January move to Liverpool, with Tottenham also reportedly willing to part with considerable cash in order to secure his signature.
He certainly gave Manchester United a run for their money on their visit to the Hawthorns in October, putting the hosts in front in the second half, this time with a cool, guided effort into the bottom corner, displaying both the clinical and composed natures of his game.
Berahino’s purple patch in front of goal was too appeasing for Hodgson to resist, with the striker receiving his first senior England call-up for the November fixtures against Slovenia and Scotland. “It’s up to Saido to show he can make this step up from his own level, under-21, to the senior level,” Berahino’s former West Brom boss said – but the opportunity never arose.
Hodgson didn’t opt to play the 21-year-old in either the Euro 2016 qualifier at Wembley or the friendly at Celtic Park. A harsh omission from the outside, but the England boss may have had a reason. A couple of weeks after that international break, it emerged that Berahino had been arrested for drink-driving the month before. He was charged with the offence in January, but personal and professional lives stayed apart for the time being.
With Tony Pulis appointed as the sacked Irvine’s successor, the forward still appeared regularly on the scoresheet over the rest of the season. However, the smiles started to disappear. A four-goal haul against Gateshead in the FA Cup didn’t produce a single ounce of emotion on the frontman’s face. “I was just handling business and acting professionally and that’s it,” he said. “There’s no need for me to explain myself on not celebrating goals.”
Attitude issues and rumoured unrest saw West Brom scrap plans to give Berahino a new contract, accepting that they’d have to sell him on in the summer but, when Tottenham came calling, their bids were rejected, prompting fury from the player himself. When he was denied a move to Spurs on deadline day, Berahino threatened to strike, saying that he’d never play under chairman Jeremy Peace again.
September rolled around and the striker was still stuck at the Hawthorns. A sort of ceasefire was instilled to cool the tensions between player, club and coach, allowing Berahino to remain involved with the first team. Any grudges the supporters held against him were all but forgotten, if not forgiven, when he stuck his leg out to deflect James Morrison’s shot past Brad Guzan at Villa Park, sealing a 1-0 victory for the visitors.
It was an ice-breaking moment that was met with sheer joy by Berahino himself in his celebrations as his teammates surrounded him in support. They knew this special yet rugged talent was worth the effort of keeping happy, but that viewpoint wasn’t shared by their manager.
More approaches from other clubs were rebuffed by West Brom in January and again the following summer as Pulis eventually froze the player out for the disruption he was causing. Berahino’s stay at the Hawthorns came to a sour end as Stoke finally agreed a deal to take him north, where he would also find himself singled out for criticism by Paul Lambert as the Potters were relegated to the Championship.
Just as it seemed this downward turn would spiral out of control, there was salvation. In the summer of 2018, as his former under-21 teammates Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Jesse Lingard starred for England at the World Cup, Berahino was re-introduced to international football.
In his first cap for the country of his birth later that year, Berahino found the net as Burundi drew 1-1 with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon in Libreville. Burundi had never qualified for any major tournament before but, with the Africa Cup of Nations expanding in size, they were beginning to dream.
When Gabon visited Bujumbura the following March, the Swallows needed just a point to secure a place at the finals. A defeat, though, and Gabon would take their place in Egypt. Despite the odds stacked against them, the fairytale, one that had seemed more like a roller coaster for Burundi’s captain, did have a happy ending as the match finished 1-1 and euphoria erupted around the stands of the Intwari stadium, the city and the country.
After decades of despair, a fleeting moment of joy, and, at last, Burundi had something to look forward to.
For young Burundians growing up, they now had someone to idolise. Someone who had been in their shoes, not literally, and had gone on to achieve big things. Even if the minnows’ AFCON campaign ended without a win, a point or even a goal, the armband wearing Saido Berahino is still a hero for many.
After personal misdemeanours ended his stay in Stoke early, the 26-year-old is rebuilding his career with Zulte Waregem in Belgium, but there’s still a long way to go. Significant doubts remain over whether he’ll be able to fulfil his full potential in football but, either way, his father will definitely be proud.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08