ALEXANDRIA – Captain of the Burundi national team Saido Berahino has a message for the Super Eagles ahead of their Group B 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) opener later today at the Alexandria Stadium: underestimate The Swallows at your own peril.
The Swallows are appearing in an AFCON finals for the first time in their history and have three-time winners Nigeria to contend with for their continental bow and Berahino who addressed the media ahead of the match believes his side can more than hold their own against the West Africans and he has good reason to feel confident.
Burundi confounded expectations to not just seal a historic qualification to Africa’s football showpiece, but to do so in style; sealing their place in Egypt whilst remaining unbeaten in a qualifying group that had Gabon and Mali.
It is a feat that even now, the 25-year old striker who fled the country for England as a 10-year old still talks about with pride especially about his role in it. Berahino has endured a topsy-turvy last few years once having to endure a goal drought of 913 days without a competitive goal for two different club sides, a run that stretched from 27 February 2016 to 28 August 2018.
That drought was broken when Berahino scored on his debut for The Swallows in an AFCON qualifier against Gabon after the Stoke City forward switched allegiances to the country of his birth from England who he had represented through the grades from U16 to U21 level. And regardless of how their tournament turns out, Berahino believes his place in the history books is already assured.
“[Qualifying for the AFCON is] a massive honour for the country,” the former West Brom player said.
“The day that we qualified people were saying for the first time ever in the history of Burundi people united together, celebrated together the whole town was going crazy for two or three days and you can see the smiles on their faces since they know that they’ve qualified.
“And for me as well, I’ve written history, I’m always going to be in the history books nobody is going to take that away from me and now, we’ve got to try and hold our heads high whatever happens in this tournament and end it well.”
But first they would have to start well and despite being cast as underdogs for the encounter against Nigeria, Berahino says the underdog tag has been a potent weapon for Burundi often serving to lure opposing teams into letting their guard down, citing their unbeaten qualifying campaign as ample evidence that the Swallows are more than capable of upsetting the odds.
“We’ve been called underdogs from the qualification stages and for us, most of the players are motivated by this because we can play freely,” he said.
“Not a lot of nations can expect too much from us because they don’t know us; they probably don’t watch our games so that releases a lot of pressure on us so we can play without any fear at all and that’s what we managed to show in the qualifications and that’s why we went through the whole qualification unbeaten.”
As for the Super Eagles, Burundi have “looked at their strengths and their weaknesses”, Berahino says, and will go into the encounter “in confidence” having being prepared for the crunch encounter by head coach Olivier Niyungeko who used their friendlies against Tunisia and Algeria as a test run.
“The preparation that we’ve done, we have looked at their strengths and their weaknesses. The coach did a brilliant job to prepare us for this game, the good thing is that we played two very good games against Tunisia and Algeria to prepare us for a big game.
“So, we are going to go in confidence. I know they’re expecting to win because they’re a big nation they’ve got a history but you know football is a ninety minutes game and that’s when things are decided so we are not going to and let them walk all over us, we will stand tall like we have against other nations in the qualifications and friendlies and let the best man win.”