GAEL BIGIRIMANA insists Burundi’s qualification for the Africa Cup of Nations was akin to a second Independence Day for the country as the Hibernian midfielder emphasised the significance of the achievement for his homeland.
The Swallows reached the summer showpiece for the first time in their history last month when they secured a 1-1 draw against Gabon.
With only a handful of players based outside Africa, including Stoke City front-man Saido Berahino, the footballing feat was laudable as they booked a spot in Egypt.
However, Bigirimana believes the social impact is similarly pivotal, given Burundi has been ravaged by civil war and poverty since gaining its independence from Belgium in 1962. The World Happiness Report of 2018 ranked Burundi as the least happy nation on the planet.
“It was an incredible moment for the national team – and the country,” said Bigirimana. “In the years since independence, for so long there has been nothing to lift the country. It has been a long time.
“So for that to happen, it was like Independence Day all over again. The population went crazy, full of joy, and it was a privilege to be involved.
“In my country, for such a long time there was no hope. It was a dead place and getting worse and worse. If footballers can bring a little light to the nation, we will appreciate that and be honoured to do our bit.”
The pressure on Burundi heading into that encounter was hard to overstate, with swathes of supporters making their way into the modest Prince Louis Rwgasore Stadium in Bujumbura around SIX HOURS before kick-off.
With a point enough for the hosts, Cedric Amissi settled the nerves with a goal in the 75th minute. The champagne was on ice when Gabon levelled with eight minutes left courtesy of an Omar Ngandu own goal. However, Bigirimana’s boys held firm.
“All through the preparations during the week, it was just building up,” he recalled. “On the day of the game it was a 3 p.m. kick-off – and by 9 a.m. the queue was already massive and people were coming into the stadium.
“The stadium probably holds 10,000, but I’m sure there were 40,000 supporters in there. There were more people who wanted to come in but the officials had to turn them away.
“I was so proud of my teammates because it was a moment when we needed bravery and courage. What was at stake was huge and it is a humbling thought to know what we did.
“I know how much talent there is but people don’t visit Burundi, scouts don’t go there and clubs don’t even know Burundi exists. Now, the players are going to have this incredible window of opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Bigirimana has vowed to remain positive as he seeks to make an impact under new Hibs boss Paul Heckingbottom in the final five games of the campaign.
A January signing from Motherwell prior to Heckingbottom’s arrival, the 25-year-old has made just one appearance for the capital club – as a second-half substitute against Aberdeen in February.
He told Hibs TV: “I signed and moved my wife and family here – although I know it is not far from Hamilton! I was excited to be part of a Hibs team that could climb the table.
“But obviously the gaffer [Heckingbottom] didn’t sign me and that can be a difficult situation. It has been a very frustrating time but this is not the end of the road.
“The manager has been honest with me and that is all you can ask for. Sometimes the truth is hard to swallow but he has told me where I am in the order of the midfielders and, with the team doing so well, I need to stay positive and have a good mindset.”