We spoke to West Brom's goal-getting boy from Burundi in the November 2010 issue of FourFourTwo...
For England’s youngsters, 2010 has been a good year. A number of them emerged proudly from the under-17 team’s glorious endeavours in Liechtenstein, where they were crowned European champions – not least Ipswich Town’s Connor Wickham, who scored both England’s goals in the semi-final and the winner in the final against Spain.
But it’s easy to forget – and most do – that England were losing to Turkey in the group stages, and were facing a tough knockout draw unless they could turn things around. Step forward the boy who wasn’t even meant to be in the squad: Saido Berahino.
The West Brom striker, then 16, was omitted from England's U17 squad despite some fine performances in qualifying, and only flew out to the tournament as an emergency call-up due to another player’s injury. Once there, though, he dispelled any doubt over his quality as he skipped past three Turkish defenders before slotting home to draw England level. The Three Lions went on to win 2-1, make the most of an easier knockout stage and win the tournament.
So, Berahino then – the unappreciated wonder. Luckily, that’s all about to change. The 17-year-old, currently impressing in the Baggies’ reserves, has been tipped for stardom.
He’s come a long way from humble roots, that’s for sure. Berahino was born and raised in war-ravaged Burundi in central Africa, before moving to the barely less volatile Tanzania. Upon arriving in Birmingham aged 10, he spoke no English – only French – and struggled to fit into his surroundings.
Now, the future is bright for Berahino and, as he explains, he believes in himself to reach the very top.
Burundi to Birmingham: that’s quite a journey for a footballer. How did you get into football in your place of birth? It’s hardly a footballing hotbed...
Most of the time when I was at school I’d just play football with the other boys. We used to watch big occasions on TV like the World Cup or the African Cup of Nations. We looked at the TV and hoped that one day we could get there ourselves one day.
Is there one particular game that sticks in your mind?
Definitely: the 1998 World Cup Final, when Zidane scored two goals for France. That was a big game: all the family was together and my favourite player, Zidane, was playing.
Were you encouraged to play yourself by anyone?
Well, because my whole family’s into football, we all grew up knowing football as our sport – a main sport that we all liked to play. So growing up in that environment I just fell in love with the game, really. Since a young age, all I really wanted to do was play football.
What was it like starting all over again in England?
The first few years were difficult because I didn’t really know anything about England – football-wise or anything. At school, I got to know a few people. I started playing in five-a-sides, then Sunday league, then I found myself getting scouted for West Brom. I used to play for my local team, and the manager told me I’d been sent to West Brom for a trial. At the time I didn’t really know who they were, because I didn’t know the English teams apart from the big four.
When I went for a trial I didn’t know what it would be like. But I got the chance to come here and it was just better [than the club I was with]. It has everything you want: all the coaches are great, it’s good for working, you can improve your weaknesses... they care about us making it the game.
Have you spoken to anyone in the first team?
Yeah, I’ve trained with the first team. I spoke to them and they’re good lads. Neil Clement was really helpful and gave me some advice. It just gave me a little snapshot of football and how to go about your business.
Do you believe you can be a great footballer?
I do believe in myself. I believe in my abilities and I believe in the people around me that help me. For me, it’s about working hard and enjoying every session. If you don’t enjoy it then you don’t learn anything.
Have you always been a striker?
Yeah, always. I just love scoring goals. I’m not pacy, but powerful and with good technique. I’m working on my headers too – I don’t score many.
England, then: how did it feel to get that call-up for the U17 European Championship?
It was really amazing. I was sleeping and got a phone call. I thought I was dreaming or something! It was really good to be involved in that tournament, especially with players my age. It was a good experience. And playing at the tournaments with the best players – you can’t ask for more than that.
What was it like to score against Turkey after being given the chance to show what you could do?
It was a really good feeling because it was such a big tournament. It was a crucial goal because we were 1-0 down and we needed that goal before half-time – me getting it was just unbelievable, really.
It must have felt really good winning the tournament then...
Yeah – we’ve always been a group, our year group, so we all just gelled. All we wanted to do was become champions.
Saido Berahino was speaking in the Umbro supplement of FourFourTwo's November 2010 issue.