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Coventry's boy from Burundi

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Paul Fletcher | 15:09 UK time, Monday, 12 March 2012

Gael Bigirimana was walking to the supermarket with his brother to buy some milk when he spotted Coventry City's academy training facility.

The following day he went there and asked for a trial. Slightly bemused, the coaching staff looked at the smiling yet determined 11-year-old with the broken English and explained that the club did not just take on young players who turned up unannounced. He would have to be scouted like everybody else.

Running home afterwards, having left details of the school he attended and buoyed by the promise that somebody from Coventry would come to watch him play, Bigirimana was surprised when a member of the coaching staff stopped him.

"They asked if I had all the equipment, boots, shin pads and stuff like that," Bigirimana told BBC Sport. "I said 'yes' but I did not. They said they saw me running fast but to tell you the truth I was jogging.

"The next day they gave me a trial. It was near the end of the season but they took me on for the following campaign. It must have been a miracle."

Gael Bigirimana (left) is a popular member of the squad at Coventry.

Gael Bigirimana (left) is a popular member of the squad at Coventry. Photo - Getty images

Miracle or not, seven years later the 18-year-old has just been named the Football League Championship Apprentice of the Year for a season in which he has made a significant impact at the struggling second-tier club.

He has so far played 21 times for the first team after making his debut against Leicester in August and quickly became a cult figure among the club's supporters with a series of skilful and wholehearted performances in the centre of midfield.

"He has a good touch and has shown a maturity beyond his years," said Sky Blues manager Andy Thorn. "He has acquitted himself well."

Performing in such a pivotal position in a struggling side is a big responsibility for somebody in their debut season and Thorn is candid enough to admit that the youngster's form started to tail off. Bigirimana has not played for the first team since their match against Southampton in January. Even so, he had made enough of an impression to reportedly be the subject of a recent approach from Championship rivals Burnley, who wanted to sign the youngster on loan.

Bigirimana himself sounded philosophical when asked about his return to the youth side after a prolonged taste of first-team action.

"Football is full of disappointments," he explained. "Each one must make you a better player. Besides, the youth team are pushing for the league title and it is great to be able to help my friends there."

This upbeat, selfless attitude is part of the reason why players in the younger age groups look up to him. He told me that one of the things he needed to work on is developing a selfish streak in front of goal. He has infuriated his coaches at times this season by passing to a team-mate when he should have gone for goal himself. When I asked him about his ambitions he talked more about wanting his team-mates to succeed than listing any particular aspirations for himself.

He has regularly volunteered to visit schools in the area to talk to the younger pupils about his story and I imagine it must make for gripping listening because Bigirimana's journey in life sounds like the plot for a Hollywood script.

He is a refugee from the war-torn African country of Burundi who came to England in 2004. His mother arrived first before Gael followed with his father, two brothers and a sister.

Back in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, he played football at every opportunity, barefooted, on the streets. Prior to his arrival in England he lived briefly in Uganda and had his first experience of wearing boots and playing in a structured competition.

He had not been at Coventry City for more than a handful of training sessions before he approached the coach and asked to be moved to a higher age group. He explained that he was not finding his own group challenging enough.

It quickly became obvious that the boy from Burundi was a gifted footballer who loved to entertain and played with a freedom that endeared him to those around him. However, it was equally apparent that he understood the value of hard work.

"His determination to achieve manifests itself in his being the first at training and the last to leave," said Coventry academy manager Gregor Rioch.

Bigirimana is a deeply religious man who believes that everything that has happened to him is part of God's plan. The setbacks have been designed to make him stronger. He clearly has a huge determination to overcome any obstacles in his way.

This season he has attended extra sessions with the club's education officer on a Thursday afternoon to catch up on the studies he has missed as a consequence of his involvement with the first team. It is the sort of application that helped earn him his Apprentice of the Year award and should stand him in good stead for a successful career.

Thorn told me Bigirimana can have a "massive, massive future in the game" and added: "Gael's is an amazing story and just shows with the right dedication, work ethic and commitment what you can actually achieve."

As Bigirimana walked off the stage in London on Sunday evening clutching his award he had a huge grin on his face; don't bet against there being plenty more.


  • Comment number 1.

    Great story. I hope he goes a long way in the game.

  • Comment number 2.

    Nice story

  • Comment number 3.

    What an endearing story!!

    Can't say I've heard much of the player, but will be intersting to see whether he stays with the sky blues if they are relegated. No doubt with his reported work ethic he has all the potential to become a premiership player.

  • Comment number 4.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 5.

    Good for him - seems like a lovely lad - and having spent some time in neighbouring Rwanda I wish all the best to anyone from that troubled region who can make a go of it - and be an ambassador for their country.

    Would he consider coming to help out Rangers ? The boy obviously knows hardship.

  • Comment number 6.

    Nice to see a positive story. Best of luck to the boy, ive spent a part of today reading gruesome story followed by tragic story followed by more horrible news. This is a good wee lifter.

  • Comment number 7.

    Since he's been living here since he was 11, it would suggest to me he could play for England one day.

  • Comment number 8.

    As a Coventry fan, let me be the first to say "hands off" to fans of other clubs eyeing Gael up after his award and this article. We're struggling both on and off the pitch and desperately need to hold on to the players we have, whether we stay up or not.

    He has a long way to go, but the signs are promising. He's already demonstrated a fantastic attitude, but I do feel he can be too nice at times. He has great composure and self-confidence, but - as Paul points out - he lacks a killer instinct in front of goal. In fact, he has yet to score for us, and I'm hard-pressed to remember him actually attempting to shoot. He is also a little lightweight, but he will surely bulk up as he gets older.

    His vision and range of passing, though, is tremendous and he has a fantastic touch.

    If he continues his development at this rate, I'm certain he will have a terrific career. For now, though, he should stay with Coventry and make the most of the first-team experience we're giving him.

  • Comment number 9.

    "don't bet against it being the last."

    Is this the exact opposite of what you meant? Or do you really think he will never smile again?

  • Comment number 10.

    Have worked in Bujumbura, and now how keen the kids are to play football and have something of a normal existence with conflict going on all around them. They want first and foremost to enjoy playing and enjoy being part of the team.

    Knowing this, it is not surprising to read that he is loved by his team mates - but doesn't have a killer instinct. not surprising given his background. I hope he does really well, and that his personality and commitment coupled to his ability will enable him to do well. I'm sure he'll be an asset to any team he plays for, though suspect that his light build will not see him rise to the very top in the UK due to the physical demands of playing here.

    Great to read about him. Thanks for the blog.

  • Comment number 11.

    Now then,

    Thanks for your thoughts so far. I was really impressed when talking to Gael after he picked up his award on Sunday. He was humble but confident and extremely likeable.

    I think that his story is one of those that reminds you what can be achieved if you really pursue what you desperately want to do. It will be interesting to see how far he goes in the game.

    I did ask him who he would play for at international level. He fudged the answer!

    Caveman_Ninja - post 9 - a very fair point. I've tweaked that.

  • Comment number 12.

    I'm a season ticket holder at the Ricoh and in a dark, dark season Bigi has been one of the bright spots along with some of our other great young talent such as Cyrus Christie and Connor Thomas.

  • Comment number 13.

    11. At 18:02 12th Mar 2012, Paul Fletcher wrote:

    I think that his story is one of those that reminds you what can be achieved if you really pursue what you desperately want to do.
    Oh! I had read it completely differently! I had read it as a wonderful story about a fantastic young man that shows us all how we should appreciate the fortune of our circumstances. He is a bright light in a world filled, driven and controlled by the Terrys, Lampards, Coles, Nasris, etc., a young man who seems delighted at the prospect of playing football and getting paid for it. He is how we wish all professional footballers should be, he fulfills all our childhood dreams. How many times have we heard, or indeed said ourselves, how we wish these moaning, over-paid, spoilt brats that we call footballers would just shut up and realize that the rest of us would love to be in their position, and would do it for free instead of demanding ridiculous sums of money and behaving like an absolute tool if we don't get what we want.

    All hail Gael!

  • Comment number 14.

    Given that the sense of outrage is still simmering around English football, I thought I'd take the chance to point out that the use of the term 'boy' in the media seems to be associated with people of colour or from lower social classes/'developing regions'.

    It has a somewhat patronising tone even though it is typically used by people in a 'postive' manner.

    This is not based on any content analysis research, but just something that I have picked up on. I'm sure many of the people reading this are just as outraged by as I am by recent events.

    That being said, it was nice to read that the boy from Africa had a huge grin on his face.

  • Comment number 15.

    Tom Halstead - post 13 - Surely it can be read both ways? I don't see why it cannot be a combination of desire and circumstance.

    der Retter - post 14 - the use of 'boy' was not intended as patronising at all. When he came over from Burundi he was a boy. And I love a little alliteration.

  • Comment number 16.

    @ #14: the 'boy' being referred to is the 11 year-old Bigirimana asking at Coventry's training ground; how would you prefer that he be referred to? 'Boy' is surely an appropiate term for an 11 year-old male...

  • Comment number 17.

    Will this mean a return to more regular blogs by the way, Paul? I hope so.

  • Comment number 18.

    @15 @16

    The comment was made partly in jest in an attempt to make people consider the consistency of their 'moral positions'.

    That being said, the title of the piece still refers to him as 'Coventry's boy from Burundi'. Given that he was not a Coventry player when he arrived, I assumed (maybe incorrectly) that the piece is refering to the player as currently being 'Coventry's boy from Burundi'.

    @15 I take your point...but you still slipped into the 'smile on his face' cliché.

  • Comment number 19.

    The trouble is, if he does well, he'll be snapped up by a bigger club who will play him rarely & farm him out on loan on a short term basis, turning him into the professional mercenary that haunt clubs like Man City if he's not careful. The greed at the top of football destroys too many young & talented players' careers, as well as taking away from clubs Coventry the chance to bring talents like his to fruition & reap some of the benefits - other than a bit of cash - of their faith & contribution to his development.

  • Comment number 20.

    @15 of course it can - didn't mean to offend or complain with my comment, only to give my interpretation and opinion, for what it's worth! What is it they say about good art and subjectivity?!

  • Comment number 21.

    @19 but it could aslo be a good move as he could break into the first team like oxlade chamberlain at arsenal but i do understand what your saying

  • Comment number 22.

    "don't bet against it being the last"... is that a triple negative?

  • Comment number 23.

    Nice story there,
    My name is Cyriaque, also from Burundi and i'm happy for Gael and for his story,
    wish him all the best.

  • Comment number 24.

    Nice story, I wish the young lad lots of luck and success

    @ Der Retter

    I see your point, it was rather unfortunate the irony failed to somewhat translate onto computer screen text. In a similar agreement, I often find it really uncomfortable (and highly un-PC) to be constantly referred to as "boss", as it feel it's a throwback to the colonial era, yet somehow this word is fast becoming somehow an accepted way of addressing someone in London (maybe other places aswell) urban speech.

  • Comment number 25.

    btw Paul I've missed your blogs this season, hopefully if possible you'll be able to do some more again in the future :-)

  • Comment number 26.

    good on you Gael,just goes to show you,"where theres a will theres a way"..this story has made my night

  • Comment number 27.

    How refreshing for a player to have such a good attitude towards football. I hope he goes on to big things :)

    Oh and as for the politically correct comments...give it a break,will you not stop until free speech is completely eradicated ???

    @9,22"don't bet against it being the last."....award he picks up. Makes perfect sense to me. Hopefully this will now free you up to actually make a comment on the story ;)

  • Comment number 28.

    A good example of determination from someone who learnt from life of hardship....Gael will be winner....Good luck!

  • Comment number 29.

    If that isn't inspiration I don't know what is. Sounds like a really nice guy to boot and with his head firmly screwed on.

  • Comment number 30.

    A real 'Roy of the Rovers' come 'Boy's Own Story'... sincerely wish him all the best... but, the crest of the wave eventually crashes into the beach... sounds like he really needs to continue to work hard to get back into the first team... and Coventry could really do with some magical performances now...

  • Comment number 31.

    Oh, and the 'don't bet against there being plenty more' final comment from Mr Fletcher makes perfect sense...

  • Comment number 32.

    What a great story and a previlage for the young star Iwish him all the best. Sometimes I think THE SAYING WHERES THERE'S A WILL THERE'S A WAY done applied because I personally wrote to Drogba at chealse years ago about my son who also is from africa and as young struggling to get a trial so as to help him but not even a reply did I get from him or from the club which was disappointing because I consider him as a role model to my son.

  • Comment number 33.

    Cole, Lamps, Nasri et al. all started out as lovely little boys wanting just to play footie.
    Then money turns them and they recieve not only more money but more pressure until they start moaning and hating everything and everyone. Don´t blame the players, it´s the game (and I´m not talking about football.) Give this boy 200 grand a week and watch him turn into a misrable, self centred so and so.

  • Comment number 34.

    I worked in Burundi as a volunteer at Kanyosha, just outside Bujumbura, the capital, from 1969-1971.
    If I remember my Kirundi, the language of Burundi, the name Bigirimana means "I have seen God".
    Sounds as if God has helped him on his feet!!!
    Would love to know what happened to some of the people there.


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