Despite shadow of war, hope springs eternal for sport in South Sudan

South Sudan's Luol Deng

South Sudan’s Luol Deng (left) drives forward for the Miami Heat in a past NBA game.

Nicholas Musonye remembers the mood in Juba when South Sudan, then still part of one Sudan, co-hosted Cecafa’s 2009 U-20 tournament.

The secretary general of Africa’s oldest football confederation describes it as vibrant and optimistic with an unwavering belief about all things being possible.

Independence, which was a foregone conclusion even before a referendum to determine whether that was the way to go, was a short two years away but everywhere people were brimming with confidence.

Matches took place in Khartoum and Juba with the future capital of South Sudan hosting two quarter-finals. People were witnessing the unfolding of a dream.

After a civil war hacking back to the mid 1950s, South Sudanese were actually taking charge of their own destiny. The united Sudan were actually no minnows in African football; they hosted the first Africa Nations Cup in 1957 and wound up third, they were runners-up to Ghana in the 1963 edition and won it at home in 1970.

Those teams comprised a heavy presence of South Sudanese players but always, as in all other aspects of life in Sudan, it was people from the North who called the shots.

The role of the Southerners was basically to do what they were told to do and keep their opinion to themselves. It is this kind of existence that drove Mr Salva Kiir, now president of the country, to declare in 2005 that the forthcoming referendum was a stark choice between being a “second class citizen of Sudan or a free person in your own homeland.”

The optimism around the 2009 tournament was well founded. “After independence,” says Musonye, “the government of South Sudan started investing a lot of resources in football but not just football, all sports. I know for a fact that there were plans to build international size stadiums across the country. The policy was imaginatively aimed at developing youth sports. Hosting the Cecafa U-20 even before independence was the first small start.

“But war is bad. The outbreak of another armed conflict has slammed the brakes on all that. Every facet of social and economic development is the first casualty of war. The development of football in that part of our region has been affected and I am looking forward to the return of peace and stability because I saw for myself how promising the start had been at Independence.”

Obviously because of Kenya’s enormous input towards South Sudan’s independence through the tortuous negotiations held here, Harambee Stars were invited to become the country’s inaugural international opponents to celebrate freedom on July 10, 2011. It didn’t work out and Tusker FC went in their place – and duly beat their hosts 3-1 at Juba Stadium.

South Sudan’s first international match against another national team was not to take place until exactly a year later when they hosted Uganda Cranes and held them to a 2-2 draw, again in Juba. By that time, the aptly-named South Sudan Youth Sports Association was already up and running with coaching clinics being held regularly in Juba. But because of the country’s dire infrastructure and human resource situation, spreading to the other parts of the country was still on hold.

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Cecafa was the natural starting point to the new nation’s international ambitions. It participated in its first ever international tournament, the 2012 Challenge Cup held in Uganda and underwent its baptism of fire, losing 0-1, 0-2 and 0-4 to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda respectively. By that time, the country had already been admitted as a full member of both Caf and Fifa.

Says Musonye: “What I saw then were not the losses but the potential. This is what I see even now. Any government that makes investments in youth development is on the right track and it is only a matter of time before results show. Despite all the problems that South Sudan is enduring today I see a lot of potential in them. At the same time, I am hoping for peaceful relations between the two Sudans because the North has an established league and many talented Southerners need it, as other players in the region including Kenyans, do.”

The Sudanese clubs with which many Kenya fans have been familiar over decades are Al Merreikh and Al Hilal, and more so the former. The nation’s regular campaigners in the Cecafa Club Cup, Africa Champions League and Caf Confederation Cup – or their earlier variants – Gor Mahia, AFC Leopards and Tusker, have found the two teams as regular opponents.

Al Merreikh is a three-time winner of the Cecafa Cup while Al Hilal was a bogey team for our clubs during the halcyon days in the 1970s and 80s. In recent times, AFC Leopards striker Allan Wanga, found greener pastures at the Al Merreikh Stadium in Omdurman. Both these clubs have featured plentiful talent from South Sudan throughout their long history stretching back to the 1900s and 30s.

They are to Sudan what Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards are to Kenya or Simba and Yanga are to Tanzania: mass appeal clubs whose games are guaranteed sell-outs and whose old rivalry accounts for the enduring popularity of the game in their countries. South Sudanese players will continue to need them because, as Musonye points out, they sit atop a long established premier league and have good infrastructure and sound administration while that of Kenya’s giants is non-existent.

There is a third club, Al-Malakia Football Club, which participated in this year’s Cecafa Club Championships in Dar es Salaam. This one is South Sudanese, based in Juba, but little known to Kenyans despite all of its 69 years. It is the current South Sudanese premier league champion.

The South Sudanese national football team, which started off at a Fifa ranking of 199 following their maiden game against the Cranes, has been steadily gaining in experience and clawing its way upwards and now rates position 144. (Kenya is 131).

South Sudan’s first foray in a Caf competition was last year when they played Mozambique for a slot in this year’s Nation’s Cup in Equatorial Guinea.

They lost hugely, 0-5, in Maputo but held the Mozambicans to a goalless draw in the return leg. And herein lies the tragedy that every sports fan hopes will not endure for long: this game was played not in Juba but in Khartoum because of the raging civil war.

Yet hope endures, despite everything. Last month, the country won its first Caf or Fifa-recognised match when it beat Equatorial Guinea 1-0 in Juba in pursuit of a place in the 2017 Nations Cup.

“The reason why I think that the future of football in South Sudan is bright is because of the level of interest,” says Musonye. “The matches we staged there during our U-20 tournament were very well attended. As a confederation, we want to see football grow in this region and hence our keen interest in the goings on in South Sudan.”

As football, the mass appeal sport, struggles to find its feet, another sport for which the South Sudanese have a natural aptitude is basketball. Luol Deng, who cuts a familiar face in the American NBA League, was luckier than many.

His father, a former member of the Sudanese parliament, gathered his family and fled first to Egypt and then to Britain in the heat of the second Sudanese Civil War.

Young Deng eventually earned British citizenship before moving on to showcase his talents in the NBA. He is the most prominent of an array of South Sudanese basketball players plying their trade in the US. And like many native sons, he has been getting his voice heard about restoring peace to his ancestral homeland.

More than two million people have been displaced from their homes the outbreak of the latest Sudan civil war, this time pitting Southerners with themselves. In the circumstances, virtually all social and economic development activities ground to a halt. The planned building of an ultra modern stadium to replace the 20,000 capacity Juba Stadium is on hold.

But in August this year, President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar signed a peace deal which is expected to give the long suffering people some respite. It is imperfect, almost everybody agrees but as President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was a witness noted, “there is no such thing as a perfect agreement. People shouldn’t see obstacles, but opportunity and hope.”

South Sudan has endured the longest civil war in Africa with the loss of millions of lives and the displacement of millions more. But no war is forever. Even this one will end. The potential of the country is enormous and it owes its young people the peace and prosperity that they so much deserve.

At the same time, this region has built such a powerful stake in that country that prolonged conflict will be untenable. Very soon, it is the names of their football players such as Richard Lado, Roy Gulwak and Athir Thomas and basketball stars like Luol Deng, Manute Bol and Kueth Duany that we shall be talking about rather than the number of dead and displaced in war.