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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.