The Swallows Have Arrived Home: Burundi and Its 26-Year Sojourn to History in Egypt

Updated on August 14, 2019
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

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

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 beauty of a 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 some nations, through hard work and analytical results, achieve dreams that few could scarcely believe. 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...Then 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 was a period where Burundi sought to make headlines. After all, the nation's only major victory came at its debut in 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 even entered a qualification phase.

But in 1992, Burundi emerged from the wilderness as it began its qualification phase at the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations. The nation did so on Aug. 16, 1992, with a stunning result—a 1-0 upset of Congo, 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 to be the difference. Two months later, Burundi embarked on another journey for the first time - that of World Cup qualifying. In only their second game, Burundi defied even more odds in its maiden World Cup 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 still was in contention for another tournament. Following the 1-0 victory against Congo, Burundi pulled off three consecutive draws, including a 2-2 home draw against Guinea. As Guinea and Burundi each finished with identical records, goal differential and goals scored, the two nations needed a one-game playoff to determine who would qualify. In the end, a penalty shootout decided the winner and Guinea that would be reaching its first Africa Cup of Nations since 1980.

For Burundi, it would be the closest the nation had at qualifying for a major tournament. Thought it won both matches against Sierra Leone during qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, Burundi had to withdraw from the competition and would 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 would enter into a bloody civil war. Once 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 Leon. A second two-hiatus would follow until Burundi defeated Tanzania over two ledges in 1998 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying.

Though it upset Senegal 1-0 in its opening group stage game, Burundi was not able carry that momentum. For the next five years, Burundi managed to only eight out of 37 international matches - a stretch exacerbated considering Burundi won only one between 2001 and 2003.

Even with occasional victories over Djibouti, Burundi had seldom success even regionally. Prior to 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. In fact, Burundi's made history for the wrong reasons as a 1-0 loss on Nov. 11, 2011 marked Lesotho's first every World Cup victory (on the 15th attempt). Five days later, Lesotho even manage to race to a 2-0 lead after only 22 minutes. Though Amissi and Ndikumana helped Burundi level the match, it was Burundi that suffered an immediate exit from the World Cup.

In 2012, the away goals rule was what sent Burundi out of qualifying. 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 in South Africa

Before 2014, Burundi's games often involved matches against East African nations. In July 2013, Burundi had a breakthrough in which the nation achieved a 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 being considered as full internationals, more players would emerge on the national team.

A third of the squad from 2014 played for LLB Academic FC - that includesmidfielder Gaёl Duhayvindavyi, who was the most capped player in the squad ahead of the tournament. Today, at 46 caps, 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 another club and his journey included stints with Molde (Norway), Lierse SK (Belgium) and Al-Merrikh (Sudan, whose home stadium was the site where Burundi won the penalty shootout). Selemani Ndikumana was a member off Vital'O FC. when Burundi qualified for the 2014 edition, where the nation would make its debut and play their games in a World Cup stadium - namely 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 lost to DR Congo came at the same time Gabon erased a 2-1 deficit to score three goals, including two in stoppage time.

A Major Shift

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

In attempting to qualify for the 2017, Africa Cup of Nations, Burundi was hoping to finish as one of the two best runners-up against former participants Namibia and Niger. Although it finished in second during qualifying for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations (ahead of Namibia and Niger on tiebrakers), 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 - 12 group winners, as well as the three best runners-up and Cameroon (the original tournament hosts). Nearly six months after the draw, a significant change unfolded for Africa's continental tournament. Not only would the tournament be moved to June 2019, but the competition would feature 24 African countries. That means now the top two nations in each 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

From the Sad Beginning to the New Hope

Perhaps no player's journey to representing Burundi had begun with so much sadness that one player who played for England in all youth levels. At only four years old, Saido Berahino was living in Burundi when his father was killed 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 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 would be on England's under-19 squad that reached the semifinals when the 2012 European Under-19 Championship occurred in Estonia. In additional Berahino, also played for England at the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup, a tournament for which England reached the Round of 16 despite three scoreless draws.

At 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 match.

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 in order 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.

Fiston Abdul Razak is in action during a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against South Sudan on Nov. 16, 2018. With 18 goals as of August 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 18 goals as of August 2019, Abdul Razak is Burundi's all-time leading goalscorer. | Source

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

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 qualifiying, it would need results against Mali. Burundi passed 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 defenes kept Mali scoreless throughout the match A penalty miss from Abdoulay Diaby late the match would see thsi match finish as 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 finished the game with 10 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 had one of the best games ever for Burundi 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. That meant now that Burundi needed only a point in its final match to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations.

In front of a sellout crowd on Mar. 2019, Burundi was doing its part by keeping the match scoreless. Then in 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 used two substitutions in an all-out effort for the winning goal it needed. In the end, the final whistle blow and history was made.

Burundi, the east African nation that underwent so much strife, qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations.

Abdul Razak scoring when it matters

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

Nation
W
D
L
GF
GA
Mali
4
2
0
10
2
Burundi
2
4
0
11
5
Gabon
2
2
2
7
5
South Sudan
0
0
6
2
18
Mali and Burundi qualified for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Legend: W - win; D - draw; L - loss; GF - goals for; GA - goals agaisnt

The Vital Draw

Hanging On and Finally Celebrating

New Stars, A Brave Display, and a Hopeful Future at Last

Having been hired in 2016, Oliver Niyungeko was Burundi's first domestic coach in 12 yeras 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 squad at the 2014 African Nations Championship would get their chance at the Africa Cup of Nations, along with some unfamiliar faces. 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 match, Burundi lost to Tunisia 2-1.

In the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Burundi faced Nigeria, Madagascar and Guinea. During the first two games, 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 still 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 match 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 has a bright future ahead of these. In the coming months, Burundi faces fellow East African nation Tanzania, who had also returned to the Africa Cup of Nations after a 39-year absence this year. Burundi hopes for qualification to the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations as it will face Morocco, Mauritania (having debuted as well in 2019) and the Central African Republic. The task will not be easy, but one thing is certain: Burundi is no longer just a nation undergoing war. Having reached the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations and returning to prominence has made Burundi winners no matter what.

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, talking to CAF Online after Burundi's exit from the 2019 Africa Cup of Nation

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Antonio Martinez

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