England's sporting refugee hero: Saido Berahino

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

New Statesman
Saido Berahino. Photograph: Getty Images

"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.