The biggest hope for East Africa in this AFCON is Uganda but just a step behind them is Burundi. The Swallows have qualified for the first time ever and they did it all by not being swallowed at any point: they qualified unbeaten, tallying two wins and four draws.
Although South Sudan were the whipping boys and beating them was as straightforward as it comes for any team in the group, a solid foundation in Burundi’s defence has given them the platform to reach AFCON from a group that also included Gabon and Mali.
They showed they were no slouches against both of those African middleweight teams, locking out Mali in Bamako and sharing the points with Gabon Libreville. They needed to avoid defeat in the final game versus Gabon to qualify, and they just about did with a 1-1 draw, keeping the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang relatively quiet despite a nail-biting finale after Gabon equalised.
Burundi have players dotted all over Africa and Asia and the rest of the world, and many of them are established players playing at a good level. That level of exposure makes them an unpredictable opposition so opponents should not underestimate them.
They will feel like they can spring a shock for the runners-up spot in this group. Similar displays to the ones versus Mali and Gabon, but with more attacking oomph, could see them fulfil their aspirations.
Burundi usually play in a 4-3-3 formation. The defence has shown high levels of performance in qualifying, particularly Omar Ngandu and Nsabiyumwa, Behind them, they have Jonathan Nahimana, who is arguably the best young keeper in East Africa.
In midfield we will definitely see Gael Birigimana and probably Pierre Kwizera and Shassiri Nahimana. The latter is the most creative of the midfielders and the only one with the vision to thread through balls.
It’s the finishers they have in attack, like Cedric Amissi and Saido Berahino, who could make them very dangerous. Fiston Abdul Razak is more complete and is capable of creating chances for himself as the most advanced striker. The enigmatic Laudit Mavugo has also had a good season in Zambia. Burundi may lack poise on the ball but they have the strikers to convert the few chances created.
Centre back pairing – The two centre backs, Omar Ngandu and Nsabiyumwa, have a good understanding and while not the greatest technical are hard to break down, as Aubameyang and Evouna found out in Bujumbura. For Burundi to do anything of note at this tournament they will both have to show the form they showed during qualification.
The Achilles’ Heel
Lacking poise – Burundi will struggle to transition from defence into attack and this can make them look like a bluntless team depsite the options they have in attack. They have midfield that is technically good but which lacks the sort of players they need to get good balls in to the attackers. Their centre-backs are a strength but both of them are not renowned for their ability with the ball.
The Algeria-based Fiston Abdul Razak is the star of this team and everything will look to go through him – and, if he starts, the diminutive Shassiri Nahimana – in the attacking third. He has covered just about every corner in Africa through his peripatetic career. He was the second overall top scorer in qualifying with six goals, just one behind Odion Ighalo.
The Hipster’s Choice
The Burundi No.1 Jonathan Nahimana arrived in Tanzania with a big reputation last summer, joining the promoted KMC. He enhanced that reputation by becoming one of the best goalkeepers in the Tanzanian Premier League. The promoted side finished fourth behind the big three teams of Tanzania, qualifying for the CAF Confederation Cup, with Nahimana rotating with the experienced Juma Kaseja in goal.
The 48-year-old has been in charge for 3 years and he will be in the history books as the first coach to take Burundi to AFCON. In line with the modern breed of Burundian coaches, Olivier Niyungeko is a studious type constantly seeking to improve his knowledge through seminars and coaching courses. He’s set his bar high for this AFCON – he wants to take the team to the knockout stages.
They don’t cherish the ball, which could be their undoing, but this is an interesting, well-coached team that could spring a surprise with that resolute defence of theirs. Dark horse material.