Afcon 2019: Stoke outcast Saido Berahino finally has a home for his talents with Burundi

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The 25-year-old is a shadow of the player he once looked like he could have been, but that is starting to change with Les Hirondelles

This weekend, Burundi will make their debut at the Africa Cup of Nations, taking on Nigeria in Alexandria on Saturday evening.

It is difficult to capture the pride and power of such a moment, but this modest nation with modest ambitions will be more than simply happy to be in Egypt. Implausible as it seems, they might actually be in with a chance of upsetting the odds.

Key to that, to their rise, is a son battling his own personal demons and, up until recently, in peril of spiralling into a permanent darkness of wasted potential and inebriation.

Saido Berahino, born in Bujumbura, moved to England at the age of 10 with his mother to escape the civil war that was raging in Burundi at the time. Unable to communicate, he found expression in football; scoring came naturally to him, and he was quickly absorbed into the West Bromwich Albion youth system.

Saido Berahino West Bromwich Albion  Crystal Palace  Premier  League 11022013

His natural talent marked him from an early age as a potential star, and he represented England at every level from U-16s through to the U-21s. in 2013, he told t he Telegraph that he wanted to represent England at international level, describing playing for Burundi as 'a non-starter'.

“I want to play at the best level with the best players at the best tournaments,” he affirmed. “Burundi is motherland to me, 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.”

The connotation, that playing for Burundi would be an experience he would conversely associate with pain and death – his father was killed in that civil war, in circumstances he has not yet broached with his mother – was clear and understandable given the trauma of displacement as an adolescent.

At the time, Berahino’s stock was at its highest: interest from Tottenham Hotspur was public, and in 2014 he truly began to deliver on his promise, returning from a loan spell at Brentford to score 20 goals in 45 appearances for West Bromwich.

Saido Berahino Stoke

However, concerns had begun to grow over his conduct: he had fallen out with the management at Brentford for his behaviour off the pitch, and attracted the ire of Baggies’ boss Tony Pulis when he began to pine for a move away. In the meantime, he was arrested for drink driving in November 2014, receiving a 12-month ban.

After an ill-advised threat to go on strike, his career seemed to hit the rocks, and so began a slow capsizing: first went the goals (he infamously went 913 days without a strike in any competition), then went his already dubious professionalism – a failed drug test for recreational drug ecstasy preceded a move to Stoke City in January 2017, where he reportedly came in overweight.

When, in April 2018, he was banished to the U-23s by erstwhile manager Paul Lambert, the memory of a player that, four years prior, had been called up to England’s senior squad was all but gone.

With the darkness closing in, it is apt that the lone shard of light that punctured the gloom was born of one of his many disappointments. Despite having been called up by the Three Lions in 2014 for matches against Slovenia and Scotland, Berahino did not actually take to the pitch, and so his international future remained unresolved.

This paved the way for a change of heart five years in the making: the Stoke forward put in for a switch to represent Burundi, the country of his birth, and FIFA obliged in August 2018.

Saido Berahino of West Bromwich Albion & England

Later that month, Berahino ended his goalless run of over two years, and the following month he scored on his international debut for the Swallows in a 1-1 draw away to Gabon in Africa Cup of Nations qualifying.

It isn’t all rainbows and butterflies just yet, however.

That debut goal would be the only time he hit the back of the net in the qualifying series. Burundi booked a place in Egypt with a historic draw against Gabon in March; two months after, he had his contract with Stoke terminated following yet another drink driving conviction.

So perhaps the story here is not so much a fairytale style redemption. It is entirely conceivable that, like quite a few footballers, Berahino may never get his act together, and that his off-field indiscretions will keep him from actualizing his full potential.

It is more that the 25-year-old has finally found the home he has been seeking since he landed on English shores at age 10.

Home is not so much where the heart is, as it is where one is accepted and appreciated. Improbably, he has even assumed the toga of leader, with Burundi coach Olivier Niyungeko praising him for "giving a lot of motivation to the other players" and "making my work easier as a coach."

On Saturday, warts and all, he will be a part of his country’s history once again, for all the right reasons.

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