Berahino vs. Aubameyang: Destinies collide in Afcon qualifier

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GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images
The two strikers have taken very different routes to Saturday's do-or-die showdown between Burundi and Gabon
When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won the 2016-17 Bundesliga top scorer award, Saido Berahino was in the midst of an infamous goalscoring drought that would extend over 40 hours of playing time.

After finding the net against Crystal Palace in February 2016, during the dying embers of his West Bromwich Albion career, Berahino would go 913 days without scoring again.

He eventually ended his drought in August 2018—bagging against Huddersfield Town in a Carabao Cup clash.

Ultimately, the hitman had gone 40 hours and 26 minutes—across 48 appearances—without scoring.

By this time, he’d left the Albion for Stoke City, although a change of scene didn’t improve the striker’s fortunes as had been hoped.

Saido Berahino Stoke City 2018-19

He endured relegation with Stoke last term, contributing just one assist in his 15 appearances, and has scored just three in 23 in the Championship so far this term.

He hasn't played since early February after again being arrested due to driving under the influence of alcohol.

Berahino’s career has been on a downward spiral since he scored 14 in 38 during the heady days of the 2014-15 season with West Bromwich, before his relationship with Tony Pulls had completely deteriorated.

While the 25-year-old has toiled, Aubameyang has continued to establish himself as one of the most lethal forwards of his generation—both in Germany, with Borussia Dortmund, and latterly in England with Arsenal.

Since 27 February 2016, when Berahino’s drought began, Auba has scored 75 goals in league games alone, not to mention a further 11 in the Champions League.

As the duo’s goal returns over recent years could hardly be further apart, so their international careers have begun to go in completely different directions.Saido Berahino Stoke

Berahino, who travelled to the United Kingdom alone following the death of his father during the Burundian Civil War, was once heralded as a future England star, and represented the national side from U-16 to U-21 levels.

He was even called up to the England national side in November 2014, by his former Baggies manager Roy Hodgson, but didn’t get on the field…therefore remaining eligible for Burundi.

After rejecting overtures from the Burundian FA earlier in his career, Berahino eventually committed to the Hirondelles’ cause in August 2018.

A month later, he made his debut, opening the scoring away in Libreville against a Gabon side containing Aubameyang, as Burundi, who are ranked 139th in the world, extended their unbeaten start to the qualifying campaign.

While the Arsenal forward would cancel out Berahino’s strike 15 minutes from time, it was a damaging draw for the Panthers as they look to return to the Nations Cup for the eighth time since 1994.

Saido Berahino West Brom 01082016

Heading into this weekend’s final qualifier in Bujumbura, Gabon have seven points from five matches and, having lost twice already, only a win will do as they look to qualify for the biennial continental showpiece in Egypt.

Burundi, by contrast, remain unbeaten, and are on course to join Mali, Group C’s leaders, in the Afcon for the first time in their history.

It’s a remarkable achievement for a nation that has been battling internal political turmoil again since the controversial inauguration of President Nkurunziza for a third term in 2015, and coach Olivier Niyungeko deserves immense credit for recruiting intelligently and getting the best out of a limited crop.

While Berahino has stepped up to spearhead this exciting Burundi side, Aubameyang’s role within an increasingly troubled Gabon set-up has become increasingly fractious.

Despite being the nation’s greatest-ever player—and their global footballing ambassador—his motivation with the Panthers has been criticised by supporters, even though he was appointed captain back in 2015.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon vs. Sudan

The goals haven’t flown as freely for Gabon as they have at club level, and Auba has been criticised for choosing when he wants to play for the national side, and choosing when he wants to stay away.

This ‘superstar’ attitude has largely been tolerated by the federation, but fans haven’t forgotten the striker’s decision to stay quiet during the post-electoral crisis ahead of the 2017 Afcon, when the Gabonese public called upon influential figures to voice their opinions.

Similarly, Aubameyang’s relationship with Fegafoot was dented by the dismissal of his father—former Gabon international Pierre Aubameyang, who was part of coach Jorge Costa’s technical staff—ahead of the 2017 tournament.

While Aubameyang senior was subsequently invited to be part of the new regime under Daniel Cousin, the wounds of the federation's decision to turn to Jose Antonio Camacho before the last Nations Cup have yet to truly heal.

It’s within this context that Aubameyang skipped Gabon’s last two international fixtures, including a 1-0 defeat by Mali that could prove decisive in the context of their Nations Cup qualifying campaign.

PIERRE EMERICK AUBAMEYANG GABON 01172015

Ahead of the Burundi showdown, he revealed—somewhat unhelpfully—that he was "thinking hard about retiring from international football”, and after no-showing a flight that he was supposed to be on on Tuesday, there were fears that he was done with the national side.

“Pierre has definitely been called-up,” insisted Cousin. “I have received no document from his club telling us that he’s refusing to take part in this match.

“He knows what I think and expect from him.”

Ultimately, Auba did arrive back in his homeland on Wednesday, to a hero’s welcome, no less.

He was sporting a new hairstyle—three stars in the colours of the Gabonese flag shaved on the side of his head—that left little doubt as to his loyalty—for this weekend at least—to his country’s cause.

However, in his path stands Berahino, a player who’s also endured a fractured relationship with his homeland, has battled image problems and off-field controversies.

Their very different career pathways have led them to this day of destiny in Bujumbura on Saturday, where only one of the pair—Aubameyang or Berahino—can reach the Nations Cup.

 

 

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