English Premiership

Berahino completes England rise

2014-11-17 12:10
Saido Berahino (Supplied)

West Bromwich - Saido Berahino's path to becoming one of the new stars of English football began with kickabouts with his cousins on the streets of Burundi, using a makeshift ball made from plastic bags or rolled-up socks.

It then involved fleeing his war-torn African homeland after his father's death to start a new life in England when he was 10, a brief but painful separation from his mother, and being discovered by West Bromwich Albion through his prolific scoring in an inner-city team for disadvantaged school kids.

Nurtured by his club and adopted country for the past decade, Berahino has blossomed into a lethal, two-footed, technically gifted striker courted by some of the biggest teams in the Premier League. And he is expected to cap a breakthrough season by making his senior international debut for England in Tuesday's friendly against Scotland in Glasgow.

It's a remarkable, unlikely story of triumph over adversity.

"Mentally I could not be any more prepared," Berahino said ahead of the biggest game of his career. "The experience I have been through in life has made me a stronger person and character. And I don't think anything now will break me down."

When Berahino runs out in an England jersey for the first time — and it'll most likely be as a substitute at Celtic Park — it will be a proud, satisfying moment for the youth coaches at West Brom who are the unsung stars behind his rise.

In 2004, Stephen Hopcroft, the club's head of academy recruitment, was alerted to an 11-year-old kid who was scoring "millions of goals" in a local youth league and invited him to a training session.

Hopcroft was blown away by what he saw.

"Someone fizzed a ball across to him and his touch was impeccable," Hopcroft recalled in an interview at West Brom's training center. "Saido was just a natural footballer, he caressed the ball when he kicked it."

Berahino was immediately signed up and West Brom's coaches encountered a humble, happy boy who couldn't quite believe where his life had taken him.

The previous year, Berahino had arrived as a refugee in England separately from his mother, Liliane. He couldn't speak any English and was forced by immigration officials to go through DNA tests before being allowed to be reunited with her once she had been tracked down.

Berahino had to spend two weeks in a care home while he awaited the results of the tests.

Together again with his mother, West Brom soon became his extended family. The club helped the Berahinos find a home and Saido apply for citizenship.

"Because of what he came from, everything he was getting was like, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm getting this help and this support,'" said Mark Harrison, West Brom's academy manager. "Saido was actually a happy young boy and when he was in the environment with us, we gave him security and stability and some normality."

Harrison said it wasn't long before Berahino spoke "perfect" English.

"Driving him home (after training sessions), he would articulate better than some of the other kids that had been brought up here," Harrison said.

Berahino has come to national, even global prominence only in the last 15 months. He scored a hat trick on his West Brom debut in August 2013, netted the opening goal in the team's 2-1 win at Manchester United the following month and earned a new contract soon after.

This season, he is the highest-scoring English player in the Premier League with seven goals. Only Sergio Aguero, Diego Costa and Alexis Sanchez have scored more. His goals have also sent England's under-21 side into that age-group's European Championship and prompted England manager Roy Hodgson to select him in the senior squad.

"Saido is turning into a beautiful flower," Hopcroft said. "Let's hope he continues to become a great big sunflower which rises high and scores goals for England and takes us into the Champions League."

It will be tough for West Brom to keep hold of this precocious talent, though, given the rate of his progress. The only way is up for Berahino, who still lives with his mother and even went on vacation with her during the offseason.

"From a young age, she has always said, 'Whatever dream you want to go for, go for it with your all,'" Berahino said. "My plan is to take as much as I can out of the experience and hope it helps me become a better player."


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