Officials in the world’s newest state that this month won its independence in a referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted to secede from northern Sudan, say they see soccer as a way to build national identity, strengthen national unity and overcome ethnic tensions.
The state of soccer in south Sudan, which bets on its oil-wealth to fund economic growth, reflects the region’s overall lack of development, the result of decades of armed struggle to achieve independence and negligence from the central government in the capital Khartoum.
Turning south Sudan into the world’s newest footballing nation, like all other issues that its first government will confront, constitutes no mean task.
South Sudan has no national team, no major soccer clubs and will have to develop skills almost from scratch. It lacks pitches and has only a few student teams sponsored by local businesses. Sudanese officials say enthusiasm and the energy garnered from independence for which some 99 percent of the population voted will compensate for those deficiencies.
Southern Sudan’s cessation and recent anti-government demonstrations in several Sudanese cities has done little to stymie Sudan’s performance in the African Nations Championship that Sudan is hosting.
Sudan on Saturday made it alongside Algeria, another Arab country wracked by anti-government protests sweeping the Arab world, to the quarter-finals by beating Gabon 2:1.
Sudanese national soccer coach Mohammed Abdullah Mazda played down in a BBC interview the impact of political tensions on his squad. He also confirmed southern Sudanese allegations of discrimination.
“We’re keeping our spirit high. Nothing influences us. Unfortunately, we have no footballers from the south. They are all from the north. Ninety percent are from two teams only,” Mazda said.
Like his counterparts in south Sudan, Hassan Abu Jamal, executive secretary general of the Sudanese Football Association, sees soccer as a unifying factor and the African tournament as a vehicle to lift morale.
“There is no any political issue about anything. (The Sudanese) will support their national team,” Abu Jamal said.
Sudan’s faith in soccer contrasts starkly with that of Egypt and Algeria, which have suspended professional league matches in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a platform for anti-government protests.