Sudan has been one of the world’s most volatile and violent states for over twenty years now. Since Omar al-Bashir’s military coup in 1989, citizens have been bound by Islamic law and had basic freedoms suspended by the totalitarian regime. With bloody purges a regular feature of the rotten political system, a climate of fear and brutality has cast a shadow over the country; Sudan’s plight being characterised by the atrocities carried out by the Janjaweed (an Arab militia group) in the Darfur region.
While this once proud country descended into anarchy and become a crucible of global terrorism, pockets of ordinary life had remained relatively unharmed amidst the chaos, carnage and murder. Remarkably, one of Sudan’s major success stories over the last two decades has been its national football set-up, the team competing relatively effectively at the top level despite horrendous disruption at home.
Having won the 1970 Africa Cup of Nations on home turf and enjoying a high profile throughout that particular decade, Sudanese football went into something of a decline, the team qualifying for their first continental tournament since 1976 in 2008. Despite losing all three of their group games in Ghana, that competition represented the pinnacle of a revival in the country’s footballing fortunes.
In 2004 Sudan finished third in the CECAFA Cup (Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations), a tournament usually comprising of around a dozen teams, an achievement which represented real sporting progress for such an afflicted nation.
With events in Sudan continuing to worsen, the team travelled to Ethiopia for the 2006 edition of the competition and remarkably emerged triumphant, beating Zambia 11-10 on penalties in the Addis-Ababa final. The feat was repeated a year later in Tanzania, Sudan scraping through the group before hitting their stride in the knock-out rounds, eventually beating Rwanda in another penalty shoot-out after the final had finished 2-2.
With the majority of the fighting having ceased (albeit perhaps only temporarily) and democratic processes coming to be at least partially restored, Sudan has continued to demonstrate an impressive level of footballing development, former Millwall first-team coach Stephen Constantine being appointed as manager in 2009 and the country deemed safe enough to host the African Championship of Nations (a competition only open to domestically-based African players) in 2011.
Saddeningly, recent progress was threatened to be undone by alleged governmental interference in the Sudanese FA, something FIFA has taken increasingly seriously during the presidency of Sepp Blatter. When a candidate was prevented from standing in the Football Association elections by the government back in July, a ban from FIFA-endorsed tournaments was prepared to be imposed on Sudan. However, the 96th ranked team in the world got their house in order just in time, avoiding the proposed expulsion and continuing with their Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign.
Developing quickly despite well-publicised political instability, and having started AFCoN qualification positively under the management of Mohammed Abdullah Mazda with a victory over Congo followed by a goalless draw with Ghana, Sudanese football looks to be flourishing after surviving the long, hard years of violent discontent. The team has emerged from the darkness and is stepping confidently into the light.
If you should feel so inclined, you can donate to the Red Cross Darfur Crisis Appeal here.