Alessandro Mastroluca documents the birth of the world's newest footballing nation.

Out there, as Bruce Springsteen sang, the nights are long and the days are lonely. Out there, in South Sudan, the cards they've drawn a rough hand. Out there, they’ve worked on their dream, becoming a new nation, though sometimes it felt so far away. And, on Saturday July 9, 2011, that dream came true: South Sudan was declared the newest country on earth.

A little under twenty-four hours later they were declared the youngest football team in the world, too. In no other way, probably, the same feeling to have become a nation could have been created. 

“We were all very emotional as it was the first time that our national team played, singing the national anthem”, recalled Makuac Teny, Minister for Sport in the newly-formed South Sudan government.

South Sudan had invited the Kenyan national team to celebrate their independence. But they refused, according to the local football website Michezoafrika due to fixture congestion in the Kenyan Premier League. So, South Sudan faced the Nairobi-based club Tusker FC. For once, anyway, result didn’t matter.

The match was played in the brand new Juba stadium, originally built on the Nile’s banks in 1962. Chinese and Malaysian petroleum firms working in the local oil fields contributed to its renovation. Now, the pitch is relaid and shines an emerald green, floodlights have been erected and new chairs mounted. The Asian investors guaranteed free admission to everybody into the stadium for the friendly against Tusker. In spite of the dark clouds gathering above, the stadium was filled.

Football is loved more than every other sport in South Sudan, although their only international stars came from basketball. Like Manute Bol, one of tallest players ever to appear in the NBA at 2.31 metres: thanks to his his shot-blocking ability he played for the Washington Bullets, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat. Today, the most respected player is Luol Deng who fled the war to grow up in Britain and now plays for the Chicago Bulls.

In the south, 80% of the divided country’s total oil production is pumped but the region is starkly under-developed. This condition is  the result of decades of struggle, which began in 1956, soon after Sudan had obtained its independence from Great Britain. As a result of this process, two regions were joined into one. The north was Arab-dominated, in the south the Nuer and Dinka peoples were the leading groups in a varied ethnic puzzle. The first war lasted seventeen years and left hundreds of thousands of victims. A period of peace followed between 1972-1983, then John Garang and his Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) launched a new rebellion.

Garang died in 2005 in a plane crash. Soon after the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) put an end to more than two decades of civil war. In one of its key provisions, the CPA provided a referendum for independence, held in January 2011. Southern Sudanese citizens voted to separate from the north with an overwhelming majority of 98.3%.

Sculptor David Morbe dedicated a four-metre tall statue to Garang, that he created with two colleagues. Under this monument, the celebrations for the independence started, and culminated in the friendly match against Tusker FC.

Football reflects such lack of development. There aren’t soccer clubs, pitches are at a premium, only a few student teams are sponsored by local businesses. During the training session before the friendly, the national goalkeeper had to shoo a group of goats from the net.

The new, provisional, South Sudan Football Federation (SSFF) has to build a league, to train referees, scientists and doctors out of nowhere and, primarily, gain recognition from FIFA and CAF, the Confederation of African Football.

“We are starting at zero. We have nothing in our hands, we are starting as God has created us”, said Benjamin Oliver, the new head of the Federation. “We won independence with the help of the international community. We were clear what goal we had, we knew the tactics of the enemy”, he added.

For example, as Sudan president Omar Al-Bashir put out in an interview with Al-Jazeera, South Sudanese people living in the north will lose their jobs, including football players, like defender Atir Thomas Magor and Goma Genaro: they played for Al-Hilal but their contracts have been concluded. A large number of Southern players have a significant presence in Sudanese clubs and formed the mainstay of Sudan’s national team. But none of the Southerners playing for northern sides could get permission to leave and join their new national side because the match against Tusker wasn’t official.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s just a minor conflict, but it mirrors the controversies South Sudan has yet to solve. Besides the war in Darfur, the new nation has to face three further key questions. First of all, how to share petroleum-derived income with the northern region, which is asking for a 50-50 ratio. Then, the new country has to decide whether to recognize or not the 1959 Nile agreement that gave Egypt and Sudan more than 90% control of Nile waters. Last but not least, South Sudan has to establish its borders, because no natural or artificial barrier separates the two regions. The Abyei area, considered a historical bridge between north and south Sudan, is harshly disputed and will maintain the “special adminmistrative status” accorded by the Abyei protocol in the CPA.

Coming back to football, Al-Bashir’s opposition forced Mahesh Soro, chosen as the national team coach because of his fifteen years of  coaching experience, to only pick players who are already in Juba for the celebrations. 

“Football is a medium to bring people together”, Soro said to The Guardian. All Southern players “were all very very proud of where they come from. They always said South Sudan. Never Sudan”.

“What is important is football's contribution to the new state” said Makuac Teny, Minister for Sport in the newly-formed South Sudan government to CNN. “We can can cement the national foundation and the anthem. We are bringing together so many tribes, 64 in total. We want to show them that there is a nation, and to integrate as a new nation”.

It’s no coincidence that South Sudan hosted a football match so soon after gaining independence, given the strong link between football and nationhood. As the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, the national team’s style of play reflects a country’s identity. 

“When you have 11 young men in national team shirts walk out onto the pitch, they are South Sudan”, Simon Kuper, journalist and author of “Football against the enemy” said to CNN. “States tend to precede nations. The way to build a nation in the TV age is through sport, because sport provides the most-watched programs”.

“I felt so lucky to be able to play for my own country at last”, said the striker James Joseph, who was born the southern town of Nimule, but grew up in Khartoum. 

Against Tusker, the last line of defence was goalkeeper Yahaya Abas, who played in Juva “for the love of the game”, he said. In the midfield, Justin Wani, whose father was killed during the war with the northern Sudanese, cut an influential figure. Khamis Leiluno, a barrel-chested striker from Wau, scored the first goal and put the new South Sudan national team in front. 

The result, however, wasn’t relevant. Tusker won 3-1, but supporters carried southern Sudanese players shoulder-high. Because, as Simon Kuper said, “a national football team is the nation made flesh."

Alessandro is a regular contributor to IBWM, and can be found on Twitter @mastrale.