England's sporting refugee hero: Saido Berahino

The footballer's triumph shows things are different for his generation.

"I'm pinching myself. It's amazing. I couldn't dream of it going that way", said Saido Berahino, the 20 year old footballer, after scoring the winning goal for England on his debut for the under-21 international team last night.

It capped an incredible week straight out of Roy of the Rovers for the young player. Last week, he had scored a hat-trick on his full debut for his club in a three-nil cup tie win against Newport.

Berahino could not hide his delight at scoring for his country, and his journey to wearing the three lions on his chest has been celebrated too.

Just ten years ago, the 10 year old Berahino was a child refugee from Burundi, fleeing a civil war in which his father had been killed, and arriving in Birmingham without a word of English.

The Daily Mail celebrated the ambition and hard-work which saw him seize the opportunities of his new life in England, finding in it cause for some "jumpers for goal-posts" nostalgia about football before the age of the Playstation.

"That is where Berahino learned to play football. Not with a coach, not on a pitch and not even with a pair of boots.  Such was their love for the game, he and his friends would make balls out of plastic bags and tape before starting matches that would go on until night-time".

While Saido Berahino’s is an extraordinary story of sporting talent and potential, it is not a unique story. 

Berahino hopes to one day compete for a place in the full England side along with the other rising stars of English football. Most will have been born and bred in England, though sometimes to parents who came here from abroad. Some, like Manchester United signing Wilfred Zaha also arrived here as a child, fleeing conflict, before making a new life in Britain.

It is a happy coincidence that Berahino plays for West Bromwich Albion FC. The football club could claim to have done as much as any other social institution to change our public conversation about racism and race. The club’s Hawthorns ground borders the Smethwick parliamentary constituency, scene of notorious racist campaigning in the 1964 general election.

In the late 1970s, when black players were still very much the exception and not the everyday norm, the great West Brom team of the era had an enormous impact on local attitudes to race and racism, with enormous local pride in the dazzling contribution of their trio of black players – hailed as the three degrees - to the team, but shock too at the ferocious response their heroes received from rival fans.

Cyrille Regis, the West Brom centre-forward, spoke to England’s young footballers at Wembley last month. He captured just how far we have come on racism in both football and society, as well as the challenges that remain today.

“In ’82 I got my first England cap. I was looking at my fan mail and I’d got a letter in the post. It said: "If you put a foot on the Wembley turf one of these are for you." It was a bullet. A bullet in the post, trying to prevent me from playing for my country", Regis told the next generation. 

“My own fans at West Brom were great, very supportive. My team-mates were great, no problem at all. The opposition fans – Millwall, West Ham, Chelsea, Newcastle – the abuse we got was phenomenal", Regis said.

That type of public racism has been banished from our stadiums – though England players have experienced racist chanting in European competition, at international and club level.

Things are very different for the Berahino generation, thanks to those who broke those barriers down in a previous generation. That the shared national pride of a multi-ethnic team represents the social reality of our diverse country is now taken for granted by most people. 

That helps to explain why it took the life and death drama of his on-pitch heart attack for many people to hear about Fabrice Muamba's remarkable personal journey from Congo to England: his playing in the Premiership for Bolton and captaining the England under-21 side were simply an unremarkable part of the modern game, until that personal drama, where his life was thankfully saved, though his playing career was sadly ended, catapulted him into the headlines.

Young footballers often face unrealistic expectations. FA chairman Greg Dyke’s unlikely prediction this week of an England World Cup victory in the heat of Qatar in 2022 would be stretching the fairytale a little bit far.

Given Saido Berahino’s pride in wearing the three lions, he might be forgiven the most unlikely of footballing dreams.

Saido Berahino. Photograph: Getty Images

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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