Burundi and Its 26-Year Sojourn to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations

Updated on June 27, 2020
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Journalism and Russian Area Sudies.

Burundi players celebrate after a goal during a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations match in Bujumbura, Burundi on Mar. 24, 2019. The 1-1 result against Gabon sent Burundi to its first Africa Cup of Nations.
Burundi players celebrate after a goal during a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations match in Bujumbura, Burundi on Mar. 24, 2019. The 1-1 result against Gabon sent Burundi to its first Africa Cup of Nations. | Source

The goal of any continental qualification campaign is that any nation can rewrite their storied histories and year with a new identity and story. A qualification phase may not always take into account the wealth of a country, but it still takes into account the heart of a nation. Results also play a factor as some nations can have some of the most talented players on the planet and miss out. Egypt missing out on three straight Africa Cup of Nations after winning three consecutive tournaments in the 2000s does come to mind.

Then there are some nations who, through hard work and the proper results, accomplish dreams that few could fathom. Perhaps no country with limited resources pulled off such a feat other than Burundi. Burundi gained a string of notable results to do something few thought it could do: qualify for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

Fans attend a 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualification match at Stade Prince Louis Rwagasore in Bujumbura, Burundi on Sept. 4, 2011. The match between Burundi and Benin ended 1-1.
Fans attend a 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualification match at Stade Prince Louis Rwagasore in Bujumbura, Burundi on Sept. 4, 2011. The match between Burundi and Benin ended 1-1. | Source

Hope Begins in the 1990s Before it Fades

It was not until the 1990s that smaller African nations would begin to play in qualifying phases as opposed to two-legged series. This decade comprised a period where Burundi sought to make headlines. After all, the nation's only significant victory came during qualifying for the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations—a 2-0 road victory in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Aug. 10, 1974. Following a 5-0 aggregate loss to Egypt in 1975, it would be another 17 years before Burundi entered a qualification phase.

Burundi emerged in its inaugural game of the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. On Aug. 16, 1992, Burundi upset Congo 1-0, its opponents having reached the quarterfinals of the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations earlier in the year in Senegal. Bernard Abdi's 25th-minute goal proved decisive. Two months later, Burundi commenced its first World Cup qualifying campaign. In only their second game, Burundi defied odds in its first home qualifier on Oct. 25, 1992. Amani Nabimana broke a scoreless draw in the 78th minute in what turned out to be one of World Cup qualifying's most notable upsets—a 1-0 victory against Ghana. Almost a year later, Burundi would find itself in another pivotal game on Oct. 24, 1993.

Though eliminated from its maiden World Cup qualifying campaign three months later, Burundi could still qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. Following the 1-0 victory against Congo, Burundi pulled off three consecutive draws, including a 2-2 home draw against Guinea. As both nations finished with identical records, goal differential and goals scored, a one-game playoff decided who would qualify. That one game necessitated a penalty shootout, and in the end, Guinea denied Burundi a berth in the tournament as it has reached its first Africa Cup of Nations since 1980.

For Burundi, it was the closest the nation would reach a major tournament. Despite two victories against Sierra Leone in its 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign, Burundi withdrew from the competition and eventually lead to disqualification on Oct. 31, 1996.

The players are shattered. In sport, we have no ethnic differences, everybody plays together. It was the only thing we had.

— Baudouin Ribakare, former Burundi head coach in a 1996 article with Paul Ames at Associated Press

Struggling From All Corners

Burundi's playoff against Guinea came days before the nation got thrust into a bloody civil war. Once the civil war started, Burundi was virtually nonexistent in the footballing world. The bloody civil took such a toll that Burundi had a two-year hiatus between its playoff loss to Guinea and the 1998 World Cup qualifiers against Sierra Leone. A second two-year hiatus followed until Burundi defeated Tanzania over two legs during qualifying for the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations.

Though it upset Senegal 1-0 in its opening group stage game, Burundi could not carry that momentum. For the next five years, Burundi managed to only eight out of 37 international matches - a stretch exacerbated considering Burundi won one game between 2001 and 2003. Even with occasional victories over Djibouti, Burundi seldom had success regionally. On the regional front and before 2004, Burundi's best finish at the CECAFA Cup occurred five years ago.

During qualifying for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, Burundi only managed to win one game in its six qualifiers - that coming on June 5, 2011, against neighboring Rwanda. A month after losing 2-1 loss in Côte d'Ivoire to end qualifying, Burundi would suffer another setback during qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. That setback occurred on Nov. 11, 2011, against Lesotho, where its opponents won a World Cup qualifier on its 15th attempt. Lesotho even led 2-0 after only 22 minutes in the second leg. Though Amissi and Ndikumana helped Burundi level the match, Burundi suffered another immediate exit from the World Cup.

In the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying, Burundi went out after two games due to the away goals rule. Despite winning 2-1 in the first leg, Burundi allowed Zimbabwe's Knowledge Musona to score goals in both legs. Burundi hoped for at least one star to bring hope to a nation that so desperately needs it. That opportunity would not come until 2013.

A Chance for Home Grown Talent to Emerge

Before 2014, Burundi's games often involved matches against East African nations. In July 2013, Burundi had a breakthrough in which the country achieved its first appearance at another African tournament. Burundi needed a penalty shootout to oust 2011 champions Sudan in Khartoum to qualify for the 2014 African Nations Championship. This tournament offered players an opportunity to represent their national team. With the 2014 edition counting as full internationals, more players would emerge on the national side.

A third of the squad from 2014 played for LLB Academic FC, and that included midfielder Gaёl Duhayvindavyi, who was the most capped player in the team ahead of the tournament. At 47 caps as of 2019, Duhayvindavyi is Burundi's second most-capped player. Also from LLB Academic FFC were Fiston Abdul Razak and Christophe Nduwarugira, the latter being the fourth-youngest player on the squad. Both players had scored two months earlier during a 2013 CECAFA Cup match against Somalia.

Burundi's most experienced played came to another club, and his journey included stints with Molde (Norway), Lierse SK (Belgium), and Al-Merrikh (Sudan, whose home stadium represented the site where Burundi won the penalty shootout). Selemani Ndikumana was a member of Vital'O FC. when Burundi qualified for the 2014 edition, where the nation debuted and engaged in games at Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane, South Africa. It was in this tournament that Ndikumana scored two of Burundi's goals. The first goal was the game-winning goal to defeat Mauritania 3-2. His second goal put Burundi ahead, but the nation was unable to advance to the knockout stage. Their 2-1 loss to DR Congo came at the same time Gabon eliminated a 2-1 deficit to score three goals, including two in stoppage time.

A Major Shift

Botswana handed Burundi another early exit, with Joel Mogorosi's 56th-minute goal in the second leg on June 1, 2014, being the lone goal over the two legs during its 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign. A year after that elimination, Burundi exited from another World Cup qualifying campaign. This time, it would be against DR Congo in a series that saw a blown 2-1 lead in the first leg and a 2-2 second-leg draw overturned to a 3-0 loss due to fielding an ineligible Bigirimana (who was supposed to have served a suspension for this match).

In attempting to reach the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, Burundi sought to finish as one of the two best runners-up against former participants Namibia and Niger. Although it ended in second during qualifying for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (ahead of Namibia and Niger on tiebreakers), Burundi lost four matches during the campaign, finishing 12 points behind Senegal.

On Jan. 12, 2017, Burundi found itself seeded in Pot 3 for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nation qualification phase. The East African nation would face Mali, Gabon, and South Sudan (having reached this phase courtesy of a 6-2 aggregate victory over Djibouti). Burundi started qualifying in style against South Sudan. Three goals in 30 minutes gave Burundi a positive start.

Initially, the 2019 African Cup of Nations would have featured 16 African countries. Nearly six months after the draw, a significant change unfolded for Africa's continental tournament. The tournament would take place in June-July 2019, not in January 2019, and the competition would feature 24 nations. That meant that the top two countries in each qualifying group would play.

Saido Berahino (right) and Nathan Redmond during training at the UEFA European Under-19 Championships in Tallinn, Estonia. Before playing for Burundi, Berahino represented England at youth level.
Saido Berahino (right) and Nathan Redmond during training at the UEFA European Under-19 Championships in Tallinn, Estonia. Before playing for Burundi, Berahino represented England at youth level. | Source

The New Hope Comes Home

No player's journey to Burundi began with more sadness that one player who represented England in all youth levels. At only four years old, Saido Berahino was living in Burundi when his father died during the Civil War; by age 10, Berahino traveled to England alone, where his footballing history blossomed.

Across seven youth levels, Berahino was a member of England's squads, including the team that won the 2010 UEFA European Under-17 Championship in Liechtenstein. During that tournament, Berahino scored a goal during a group stage match against Turkey in Vaduz. Two years later, Berahino played on England's under-19 squad that reached the semifinals in Estonia. Additionally, Berahino also represented England at the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup, where England reached the Round of 16 despite three scoreless draws.

At the club level, it was at West Bromwich Albion that Berahino progressed through the youth clubs and eventually to the club. One of the more memorable events in Berahino's career came on Sept. 28, 2013, when his first goal of that season proved historic at Manchester United. That goal happened to be the game-winning goal for West Bromich Albion as the 2-1 victory secured the club's first victory at Old Trafford since December 1978. More recently, Berahino played for Stoke City, where at one point endured a goal-drought that lasted nearly 30 months.

With his career in England's youth level, Berahino received a call-up from then England manager Roy Hodgson ahead of a Euro 2016 qualifying match at home to Slovenia on Nov. 15, 2014, and a friendly at Scotland three days later. Berahino did not play in either game.

Six months later, Burundi offered Berahino an opportunity to play for their national team as Berahino did not play in any England senior international. Three years after being on England's squad in 2014 and not playing, Berahino still had not received a call-up. Then on Aug. 5, 2018, FIFA granted clearance to allow Berahino to play for Burundi. Berahino wanted to play at a major tournament, especially given that the Africa Cup of Nations expanded to 24 nations come June-July 2019. Berahino's first cap came timely as Burundi needed to pick up results against Mali and Gabon to achieve a top-two finish.

Berahino did just that, as on Sept. 8, 2018, his 38-minute goal gave Burundi a shock lead in Libreville. Though Gabon leveled, Burundi hung on to salvage a vital point. For Berahino, it was coming home at long last.

It's a non-starter. I want to play at the best level with the best players at the best tournaments. Burundi is motherland to me. I will always be a Burundian regardless of what happens, even if I become a successful Premier League player. I will still have the Burundi culture in me.

— Saido Berahino, talking to Henry Winter in a 2013 article featured in The Telegraph
Fiston Abdul Razak is in action during a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against South Sudan on Nov. 16, 2018. With 19 goals as of Sept. 8, 2019, Abdul Razak is Burundi's all-time leading goalscorer.
Fiston Abdul Razak is in action during a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against South Sudan on Nov. 16, 2018. With 19 goals as of Sept. 8, 2019, Abdul Razak is Burundi's all-time leading goalscorer. | Source

All to Play For a Ticket to Egypt

Getting a result in Gabon proved vital for Burundi, but if the east African nation had any chance of qualifying, it would require results against Mali. Burundi satisfied two significant tests against Mali. The first test came away in Mali's capital Bamako on Oct. 12, 2018. With Burundi recorded a notable scoreless draw on Oct. 12, 2018. Thanks to goalkeeper Jonathan Nahimana, Burundi and its defense kept Mali scoreless throughout the match A penalty miss from Abdoulay Diaby late the game would see this match finish as a scoreless draw.

Five days later, in Bujumbura, Fiston Abdul Razak gave Burundi a shock lead again, only nine minutes into the game. Burundi allowed a goal three minutes into the second half. Toward the end of the match, Mali completed the game with ten men due to Diadié Samassékou's sending off. Burundi could not capitalize late on the man advantage, but the 1-1 draw proved vital for a chance at qualification.

On Nov. 16, 2018, Abdul Razak boasted one of the best games ever for Burundi in a crucial qualifier in Juba, South Sudan. Though Burundi trailed early, Abdul Razak scored four times, including three goals in the final 20 minutes to break a 2-2 draw. More news proved vital for Burundi in the next day when Mali won in Gabon. Promptly, Burundi needed a solitary point in its final match to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. In front of a sellout crowd on Mar. 2019, Burundi was achieving its part by keeping the game scoreless.

At the 76th minute, Burundi was on the attack when Cedric Amissi one-timed a shot into the net. Burundi was almost there, but an Omar Ngando own goal set up of a nervy finish. Gabon implemented two substitutions in a concentrated effort for the winning goal it needed. In the end, the final whistle blow and history unfolded. Burundi, having undergone so much strife, qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Scoring when it Mattered

Fiston Abdul Razak scored six goals during Burundi's qualifying campaign for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Only Nigeria's Odion Ighalo (7) scored more goals during qualification that Abdul Razak. In the previous qualifying campaign for the 2017 edition, Abdule Razak scored five goals, tied for third most.

Abdul Razak also scored Burundi's first ever goal at the 2014 Africa Nations Championship during a match against Mauritania in Polokwane, South Africa.

Group C of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Qualification

South Sudan
Mali and Burundi qualified for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

The Vital Draw

Hanging On and Finally Celebrating

A Brave Display and a Hopeful Future

Having been hired in 2016, Oliver Niyungeko was Burundi's first domestic coach in 12 years and masterminded Burundi's successful qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations. Now the coach needed to name his squad. Many of the players from the team at the 2014 African Nations Championship earned their chance at the Africa Cup of Nations. Among those included Mohamed Amissi, the tournament's second-youngest player, and one of only four players born in 2000 on a roster. A day after Burundi's qualification, Elvis Kambosa rejected an opportunity for Burundi, only to accept a call back two months later.

Ahead of the tournament, Burundi participated in two friendly matches. The nation was the beneficiary of an own goal in a 1-1 draw against Algeria in Doha, Qatar. Then in their final warm-up game, Burundi lost to Tunisia 2-1.

During the first two games of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Burundi more than held their own for most of the games. However, goals during the middle of the second half in their first two matches led to 1-0 losses against Nigeria and Madagascar. Burundi had a chance as one of the best four third-place teams ahead of the final group stage match against Guinea in Cairo. However, that task became tougher come 12 minutes into the game following Nduwarigura's red card.

Mohamed Yattara's two goals for Guinea would seal Burunid's debut at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Their tournament debut may have been brief, but Burundi is hoping to get another chance at another tournament. In September 2019, Burundi's World Cup qualification campaign ended after a penalty shootout loss in Tanzania, with Burundi losing 3-0 in the shootout. Following that elimination was a pair of 3-0 losses to Uganda that denied Burundi a shot at reaching the 2020 African Nations Championship. Now, Burundi has its work cut out after losses at the Central African Republic and at home to Morocco to open the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign.

The task was never easy, but through its 26-year journey, Burundi proved in reaching the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations that they were more than an impoverished nation seeking an identity. Having reached the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations already made Burundi winners to the words. In the process, Burundi continues to explore the prominence the nation earned.

I think we have the team. We have a group of players who are committed to the cause and if we continue sticking together, people will be seeing us here more often. This should help us put our feet in and expect to see us in 2021.

— Saido Berahino, following Burundi's exit from the 2019 Africa Cup of Nation

© 2019 Antonio Martinez


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