Berahino: It's one of the great matches
© AFP

Every footballer dreams of success, but the road to glory can be longer and more winding for some than others. Saido Berahino’s journey has arguably been the toughest out of all 504 players at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, but the England striker is determined to make a happy ending out of what could easily have been a tale of tragedy.

The opening page of this story does not read 'Once upon a time in a magical land', but rather 'Not long ago in a war-torn country'. Berahino was born in Burundi in August 1993, with the country in the grip of a civil war that forced his mother to seek asylum in England. In a cruel twist, Berahino's father died shortly after and he was left to fend for himself. At this point, his mother gathered together enough money to buy him a plane ticket', and the youngster took off for Birmingham.

“I don’t really have any clear memories of my childhood over there [in Burundi], because I arrived [in England] at a relatively young age,” he told FIFA.com. “Now, I’m perfectly adapted to English culture and I’m happy with my life. But somewhere in my head, I still remember where I came from.”

Even if he wanted to, Berahino would find it hard to forget his origins. “Lots of things happened over there [in Burundi] and it definitely influences the personalities of those who have lived through it,” he explained. “In one sense, my roots have made me stronger and have helped me grow up more quickly.”

Football has certainly been a factor in his accelerated maturity and smooth integration. Indeed, West Bromwich Albion were so impressed with his trial for their U-12 team that they immediately signed him up for their academy, giving the youngster the chance to train and receive an education.

I wasn’t born in England, but when I pull on the shirt and sing the national anthem, I feel I’m in the right place.
Saido Berahino

It does not take much imagination to predict how the story unfolded from there. Hatfuls of goals followed, along with steady progress and a timely helping hand from fate. In May 2010, Berahino received a last-minute call-up to England’s UEFA U-17 European Championship squad to replace a player who had withdrawn through injury. He went on to score a stunning goal against Turkey in the group stage, before earning hero status by helping England lift the U-17 continental trophy for the first time.

Berahino’s role in the success should come as little surprise, given the passion he shows for wearing the England shirt. “I wasn’t born in England, but when I pull on the shirt and sing the national anthem, I feel I’m in the right place,” he said. “It was fantastic for me to be called up to the national side. It was as if the whole country was behind me and had confidence in me.”  

Brian Eastick is one of those who has great faith in Berahino’s talents. The England U-20 coach did not hesitate to start the youngster in place of injured first-choice forward Ryan Noble in his side’s Colombia 2011 opener against Korea DPR. Berahino, the youngest player in the squad, may not have found the back of the net, but he was involved in all of England’s brightest moments, particularly in the first half.

The match finished in a draw, but Berahino – who unusually for a forward sported the No4 shirt – was quick to point to the positives in his side’s display: “It was frustrating to see that ball wouldn’t go in, but it was encouraging to see our attacking game working well, at least in terms of creating chances. In training everything goes in! We just have to be patient and hope that there’s an end product in the next match,” he added with a smile.

England’s next opponents are Argentina in a match that represents the latest chapter in a long and historic rivalry. “To be honest, I don’t spend any time at all thinking about it [the rivalry] and past matches,” said Berahino. “I’m just focused on trying to win our first match of the tournament. As well as the history surrounding the match, our survival in the tournament is at stake. We saw their game against Mexico: they’re a technical and dangerous team, but we’ve got the firepower to beat them.

“We all know the history between the two teams. It’s one of the great matches, great players and moments of magic. All we’re interested in, though, is the Argentina of today.”

As a player who clearly prefers to write his own destiny rather than read other people’s stories, there can be no reason to doubt Berahino’s words.