By Brian Homewood
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (Reuters) – Africa Cup of Nations debutants Burundi faced Nigeria as equals and were able to show that they had quality, their captain Saido Berahino said after his side went down to narrow 1-0 defeat in their opening match.
Saturday’s Group B game appeared to be a mismatch with 89 places separating the two sides in the FIFA rankings.
Three-times African champions Nigeria, with a population of around 190 million, have taken part at six World Cups and have players scattered around Europe’s top leagues.
Burundi, with a population of around 10 million, have a squad whose players are based mainly with clubs in Africa and have never been at a major tournament. They are ranked 134th in the world by FIFA.
Even so, the team known as the Swallows in Battle created the better chances in the first half and held out until Nigeria scored in the 77th minute.
“The best thing was the way our players held their heads high against a big nation, and stepping up and playing in a big tournament, because it was tough for a lot of us, even myself,” Berahino told Reuters.
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr was highly complimentary about Burundi’s display, something which also pleased Berahino.
“It was good from their coach, they gave us a compliment and he said we stood our ground and showed our qualities,” said the 25-year-old who played for Stoke City in the English second tier last season.
“We lacked a bit of experience but the team, the unity and the togetherness is always there.”
“This is the biggest tournament we’ve ever competed in — we’ve just got to make the most of our chances, take the positives and take it to the next game.”
Burundi’s squad includes players based in Kenya, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Zambia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Australia, Oman, Ethiopia and Algeria, plus four in Europe and one at home.
But Berahino suggested that his team mates had shown they were ready to take a step up in their careers.
“We have a lot of talented players from Burundi… and they have showed their quality. I’m sure there will be teams looking at certain players and I can be proud of them. They showed they can compete at a high level.”
(Reporting by Brian Homewood, editing by Pritha Sarkar)