A certain East African country has suffered through so much since its independence from Britain in 1956.
It has experienced two civil wars. Fueled by religious persecution, language and ethnic differences, and of course political power, the struggles caused the deaths of millions and the displacement of millions more.
The country has been accused of being a haven for terrorists, leading to years of international sanctions imposed against them and its people, and has suffered through one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent times in Darfur.
The country I’m talking about is Africa’s third largest nation, Sudan.
Despite the country’s long-time struggles and issues, sports and football in particular have always helped in uniting its people and diverting attention away from the problems and issues they’ve long faced.
Sudan first formed its football federation in 1936, joined FIFA 12 years later in 1948 and CAF (Confederation of African Football) in 1957.
The country had a very good period of success from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, hosting the first-ever African Cup of Nations in 1957 and winning third place in the tournament, in which only four countries participated.
Sudan took the runner-up position in 1959 and 1967, and claimed its only tournament championship in 1970.
Despite this early period of success, Sudan’s national side hasn’t won much since. It has never qualified to the World Cup, also struggling to qualify to the African Cup Of Nations over the years.
The national team, however, managed to qualify for next year’s tournament, and also achieved qualification to the 2008 edition, which shows there are signs of a resurrection.
Sudan is ranked No. 102 by FIFA and No. 26 amongst African nations.
But it hasn’t been the national side which gains the most attention or has had the best of successes. Club football is what has brought the most success and attention to the sport in Sudan, particularly two clubs: Al Hilal and Al Merrikh.
Al Hilal and Al Merrikh are arguably Sudan’s best and most dominant clubs ever, and their rivalry is amongst the fiercest in the continent. Proof of their complete dominance of club football in the country is the fact that the domestic league has been won by one club or the other for the past 19 years.
Both of these teams benefit from being backed by two of Sudan’s richest men, aiding the two clubs in acquiring the nation’s best and most talented players: Sudan’s national team captain, Haitham Mustafa, who holds the record for most appearances in both the Sudanese league and the national team; Faisal Agab, captain of Al Merrikh and all-time Sudanese league scoring record holder; Al Merrikh player Haytham Tambal, who also played for Al Hilal and is the all-time Sudanese international top scorer.
As you can see, most of Sudan’s best players prefer to ply their trade in Sudan rather than aspire to move abroad, though there are a few exceptions, with some players opting to play in the Gulf region and in bordering African nations.
This social mindset comes from the comfortable living conditions in the country.
Since the early 2000s, Sudan has arguably been the most rapidly developing country in Africa, and with this huge economic growth (in 2005/2006 Sudan was the 17th fastest growing country in the world), the financial rewards players receive have increased to the point where there is no real incentive for them to leave their families and move abroad.
This poses the question: Is this insular attitude holding back Sudanese football? If players have the drive and motivation to excel at football, to go and challenge themselves in more competitive leagues and in a broader context, can that help improve the tactical and technical capacity of the Sudanese game?
This is just one of the reasons why the country’s national side has struggled for success over the years, despite the success of their two top clubs in African club competitions, especially Al Hilal, who reached the Semifinal in the CAF Champions League this year.
Another problem faced by Sudanese football, of course, is the huge lack of competition in the league, with only two clubs contesting for the title.
This lack of competitiveness will continue to hold back Sudanese football, and could even regress the popularity of the national league if the imbalance is not addressed.
There is also friction between the Sudan Football Association, and the government that still exists after last year’s football elections, which led to the controversial ousting of long-time SFA president, Kamal Shaddad.
Sudan’s Premier League and Football Association still rely heavily on government support, so this is a critical issue that must be addressed. If it continues, the SFA will need to start using alternative revenue streams, like continuing their broadcasting rights with Super Sport.
This is not only to help the league grow, but to survive as well.
Another concern is the failure of Sudan’s Under 17 and 19 sides from getting past the first round of the CAF qualifiers in their respective tournaments.
This is a concern as top players like Haitham Mustafa and Faisal Agab are in their 30s, and the team is in need of young, bright prospects to fill their shoes and lead the side for the next decade and beyond.
The biggest issue however, is the separation of the country and the creation of a new one, South Sudan, which was made official on July 9, 2011.
South Sudan have already formed their own football association in Juba (the SSFA), and have held two formal Internationals with their newly-formed national sides, against Tusker, of Kenya, and SC Villa, from Uganda.
Despite losing both games, the South Sudanese cheered and celebrated, showing an optimism toward their future, and the future of their new country.
Of course, South Sudan is still a baby nation, and will have to start things from scratch. The country lacks pitches, has no major football clubs, has no league and only has a few student teams that are sponsored by local businesses.
Around 80-percent of Sudan’s oil revenues is located in South Sudan, and that’s likely to be the country’s main source of revenue. That revenue will be used for the country’s infrastructure, to build pitches and clubs, to form a league, and of course to help its people and to build the country’s future.
It will be interesting to see what effect reduced oil revenues for North Sudan will have on the future of the Sudanese Premier League and the growth of Sudanese football.
A player to look out for on South Sudan’s national side is James Joseph Moga, who currently plays as a forward in India with Sporting Club de Goa, and has had stints in the Gulf, particularly in the UAE and Oman.
Moga became South Sudan’s first international goal scorer with his goal in the country’s first ever formal match against Kenya’s Tusker.
South Sudan has already made strides in improving the football infrastructure by renovating the 12,000 seat main stadium in Juba, and sealing CAF membership, which will be made official by February 2012. The country also applied for FIFA membership, which is expected to be sealed as well.
South Sudan still faces problems though, especially political ones with North Sudan. North Sudan are insistent on a 50/50 share in oil revenue and this could lead to hostilities and conflict, especially in the border regions of Abyei and South Kordofan.
President Omar Al-Bashir has also forced clubs in North Sudan to release their South Sudanese players, such as Atir Thomas Magor and Goma Genaro, which could be a major issue.
North and South Sudanese players have formed friendships with each other, and this new rule forcing South Sudanese living in the north to lose their jobs could create separation and enemies amongst themselves. That will definitely affect Sudanese football.
In my opinion, the separation could be for the better of Sudan, especially South Sudan, whose people are excited and very hopeful for the future, and eager to build a nation the world will admire.
How this separation will affect Sudanese football, no one knows. What I know is that interesting times are ahead, and I’m looking forward to watching how the national side will perform in the Cup of Nations.
I wish the people and the nation all the best of luck and happiness, and I hope that football can play a part in bringing joy and unity for both countries.
Follow me on Twitter @OAlmasri
Check out my blog, O-Posts: http://www.o-posts.net
Special thanks to Tom Legg, who took the time to help me with this article. He’s a must follow for all things African football. Twitter: @tomlegg
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