Bigirimana: Historic team can help heal Burundi

  • Gael Bigirimana tells story of fleeing unrest in Burundi and returning to become a national hero

  • Midfielder helped them earn a first ever Africa Cup of Nations place

  • Hopes the national team can heal wounds within the country

Having fled his native Burundi as a child, Gael Bigirimana returned 15 years later to help gift his country something special.

In March, Burundi booked their passage to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations for the first time thanks to a 1-1 draw against Gabon. While it will be momentous for them on the field, the Hibernian midfielder hopes its impact on the small central African nation will stretch well beyond the white lines of the pitch.

He told his story to FIFA.com, giving an emotional account of what he hopes their appearance at Egypt 2019 could do, memories of his childhood in Burundi and how he stumbled into the world of football by chance.

When I left Burundi, it was at a time when there wasn’t really peace in the nation.

I was just a kid, of course you see these things, you hear the sounds of guns, but they don’t really affect you, you don’t worry. You just play. As long as when you wake up you’ve got food, you go to school, come back and play on the street.

Life is perfect.

But my family decided they needed to do something to keep us safe, so my mum came to England. She had to leave us and try to see if she could find a way to bring me, my two older brothers, my older sister and my dad.

She’s an amazing woman because she came to Europe all by herself, struggled a lot and worked a lot. It was hard not seeing my mum but we were a strong and tight family. It helped us to stick together. It was probably more difficult for my mum, being by herself.

First, we had to go to Uganda to wait there and see if we would get the call to join my mum. Then I came to Coventry.

Gael Bigirimana as a child in Burundi

Birgirimana as a child in Burundi

As a young boy all I wanted to do was play football.

At that time, being ten, we always prayed in my house. I knew that God hears prayers and that he does answer them. My mum sent me and my brother to buy some milk and, on the way back, on the other side of the road was where the Coventry academy trained. I got a glimpse of training and a voice in my head said, ‘Go and ask if you can play’.

I went home and asked my mum, ‘Can I have £2 to go register’ but she thought I was just going to spend it on junk food. I went there anyway to go speak to them, but it was only my third month in England. As I walked over I said a short prayer: 'God, I don't know these people, and they don't know me, but all I ask is that you make them say yes'.

I asked the coach, ‘Can I join the team’, but my English wasn’t perfect and he didn’t understand why I was there. He sent me over to see the scouts to see if they would help. I told them I wanted to train, but it didn’t work like that. They said, ‘Next time you have a school game, send us a letter and we’ll come watch you and then we’ll see’.

I was buzzing and, as I was excited, I started jogging back home. But, as I was about to cross the road they shouted me back, having seen me running. They asked if I was better than the boys they had, and I told them, ‘You’ll have to wait and see!’ They asked me to come train the next day.

That was the beginning of my journey in football.

That’s the wonders of life - you never know what the future can bring.

Gael Bigirimana in brief
Born: Bujumbura, Burundi / Age: 25 / Position: Midfielder
Clubs: Coventry City, Newcastle United, Rangers, Motherwell, Hibernian
Gael Bigirimana with Coventry City and Hibernian

Bigirimana having signed for his first club, Coventry City, and now with Hibernian

As a footballer when you achieve things in your career, they don’t really sink in properly while you’re still playing.

During the recent history of my nation, there’s been a presence of hopelessness. For people there, there’s been so much blood that’s been shed and so much helplessness that the life’s been sucked out of the country.

So often if you come abroad to places like Europe, you mention Burundi and you’re met with, ‘What is that?’. They’ve never heard of it. It’s like a forgotten place; deserted.

Burundi doesn’t have the capacity – we’re not a strong nation financially – to compete with sides like Mali and Gabon in our qualifying group. It was against all odds.

For us, it was more than just qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations; for me that was just a bonus.

It was about hope. Bringing hope to a nation whose people haven’t had something to look forward to for so long.

Football is such a powerful tool that can change things.

I was still young, but I was inspired when I saw the Ivory Coast team, having qualified for the World Cup, asking both sides of the country to put their weapons down and for the nation to become one and support the team. It doesn’t mean that the country will be perfect when these things happen, but it can start something.

The last qualifier was very intense. It was like the World Cup Final for us.

Thank God that we had two chances – either we could draw or win to qualify.

We kept saying that: ‘We are the ones who can grasp this victory or drop it. The way that will happen is if we allow fear to control us.’

In life, if you are gripped by the spirit of fear it enslaves you. Once we scored, you heard the roar, but when they equalised the stadium was gripped with fear.

What impressed me most was how our team didn’t crumble or freeze. To a man we stood up and fought like warriors and we got what we deserved.

When we left the stadium in our small minibus there was a point when it was shaking side-to-side because there were so many people filled with happiness. It seemed like the country had just been liberated!

You can imagine what that does for people all over the provinces in Burundi. Our nation is a small nation, but a beautiful one.

I was speechless when we qualified.

When I was a kid in Burundi, my mum would take me to the stadium to watch the national team, but I never dreamed of playing for them. Playing football in the street as a young kid, I can vividly remember how many boys that were better than me. I never thought I would even play in the Burundian league.

It’s not that we’ve got a stronger or more talented team than the generation before us. They had so much natural ability, the whole squad was capable of going places. Whenever I would go and watch them I was inspired.

For me to play for the national team, and be a part of the first team to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations… if anybody had told me that, I’d have said it was just fairy tales.

Every time people mention the team that made history, Papy Faty will always be there.

He told me after the Gabon game, his dream was to be in the squad for a side that qualified for the African Cup, not the World Cup, just the African Cup. I'm glad that he managed to be part of making history.

He’s a legend for how long he served the nation and he’ll always be remembered. Hopefully we can bring a smile to his family and honour his legacy.

The national shirt, for me, has such power.

I’m blessed by having the opportunity to do something and make an impact in the world. It’s always a privilege and I don’t just take it for granted.

One of the things as a national team that brought us through was being united and loving each other.

The more that we continue to portray that within the national team, that message that will speak to the whole nation of Burundi.

We are all Burundian.

No matter what the person looks like, no matter what background they come from, what province they come from, what family they’re born in. We’re all Burundians.

I hope that somehow this can open up opportunities for people. Football is a relay race, you run a bit and you have to pass to the next generation, and they have to run their race. I just thank God that we’ve had the privilege of running well.

We’ll be underdogs at the Africa Cup of Nations, no doubt about that, but, being a small nation, we’ve got nothing to lose. There are no expectations for us to go win the cup.

We’re just going to go and be fearless.