War and peace; a Sudanese football portrait

Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Egypt, Algeria.  African football doesn't just stop here.  How many sports dailies are on sale at your local newsagent?  Did you know that in Sudan there are eleven?  Tells its own story.  Gary Al-Smith on Sudan.

If you got pitch side at the exact moment South African ref Jerome Damon blew to end the game, you would have thought the team in red had won the World Cup. The team in red was Sudan, and they had just clinched a 0-0 away draw in an African Cup of Nations (AFCoN) qualifier against Ghana.

Considering how much strife has hit the country in football and elsewhere, the meaning of this result in Kumasi should not be underestimated.

When you think Sudan, you think, disease. Extremism. Guns. Hunger. War.

Partly true, but like everywhere else in Africa, the Kush love their football too.

Sudan was one of four founding members of the Confederation of African Football (Caf) in the 1950s, at a time nationalism and Pan-Africanism was sweeping the continent. Around the same time, the nation gained independence from the British (1956) and were plunged into a 17-year civil war.

Sudan’s FA president Dr. Kamal Shaddad;

"At one time we had a president who dissolved all the football structures, including football clubs and the football associations. The basic structure was all destroyed and for a year, kids were not kicking balls on the street and that really affected us."

Despite the civil war, Sudan were able to host and win the 7th African Cup in 1970. The fact that there were only eight participants at the time may have helped. Certainly not as difficult as it is today with 16 teams.

After that success, Sudan would appear in one last AFCoN in 1974. Three decades came and went before they qualified for Ghana 2008, ahead of four-time World Cup veterans Tunisia. A few months prior to this, Sudan’s two biggest clubs Al Hilal Omdurman and El Merreikh had sparked a collective hope of resurgence.

Al Hilal reached the semi-finals of the 2007 CAF Champions League, while El Merreikh lost in the final of the Confederation Cup to Tunisia's CS Sfaxien. Though the Caf ranks Al Hilal as Africa’s fourth best club side now, Sudanese football’s relative success has been tempered by politics. For much of the three decades when Sudan couldn’t make the major competitions, some of their best talent left for the booming oil-rich areas further east across the Red Sea.

The duopoly of the aforementioned clubs doesn’t help the local game either. They enjoy colossal amounts of financial support from two of the country's leading businessmen. It was back in 1992 that a club besides the big two took a championship (Al Hilal Port Sudan) and before then only two other clubs had won since 1962, when the local leagues first started (Al Mourada Omdurman - 1968 and Burri Khartoum - 1969).

Al-Mourada is actually seen as the third club in Sudan football’s triumvirate. However, struggles in finance and administration mean that Al Hilal Omdurman and El Merreikh provide the bulk of the players for the Desert Hawks, as the national team is known.

Other clubs also unable to match the financial muscle of the two have to depend on government rations to survive. A change of mindset is needed at all levels to catapult Sudanese football into a consistent force.

The social structure of Sudanese society can also be blamed for the lack of ambition and exposure. Whenever burgeoning talents are spotted by clubs outside Sudan, it is difficult to keep them happy because they usually feel homesick.

In the late ’90s and earlier parts of this decade, El Merreikh’s Haytham Tambal was tipped to be the next George Weah. On becoming too hot for Sudan, Orlando Pirates of South Africa grabbed him. He soon left in 2006/07 for a simple reason: at home, his record as all-time highest national team goal-scorer makes him a megastar; in South Africa, he was just one of the guys.

The strong social bond that ties football and politics makes it difficult for national team coaches - especially expats – to have the best representation for the country.  Between February 2009 and January this year, Sudan went for the Anglo-Cypriot manager Stephen Constantine.

He had big ideas for the Hawks, but alas, you do not change a people’s mentality overnight, especially Africans – something Constantine tried to do with Sudan and Malawi before that.

Dr. Kamal Shaddad again, “The social linkages are so strong that they (Sudanese players) feel isolated anytime they go out. So, anytime you play against a country that has about 17 or more foreign-based players, you don’t expect to come up tops."

It is for this reason that the draw with Ghana – whose starting lineup fielded 9 players in Europe’s big 4 leagues – was greeted with such glee by Sudan’s eleven sports dailies. Also the reason Ghana’s media have been in such mutinous mood. Add the fact that Sudan’s national players play for honour and are not paid any bonuses while Ghana’s team enjoys four figure sums.

But Sudan deserved the draw, for they played well. Their rich history also gives them a reason to want a ray of hope from all the dark clouds. Archaeologists believe people in the area around the Sudan have been a settled culture since 8,000 B.C.

For a people so steeped in world history and as founding fathers of the continent’s organized football, the Sudanese people deserve more than they are getting. Their players know this every time they take to the field and do their best and that’s why they sang these words of their anthem with so much passion:

"We are the army of God and of our country // We shall never fail when called to sacrifice//We challenge death during hard times//We buy glory, at the dearest price…

If you consider that the last time Sudan won the AFCoN in 1970, they beat Ghana.  We may be sentimental in thinking that a draw with a World Cup quarter-finalist was the tonic Sudan needed to relive the glory days.

But here’s some free advice: don’t count on it.

Gary Al-Smith writes on African football for ESPN, WorldCupBlog, kicker and others. Get him on twitter @garyalsmith