A little under 24 hours after South Sudan became the newest country on earth after declaring its independence from Khartoum — a bloody battle it had waged intermittently since the 1950s — the first true test of the fledgling republic took place.
On July 10, South Sudan played its very first international football match, becoming not just the youngest nation on earth, but the youngest national football team too.
“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 becomes newest U.N. member state
Like the rest of the crowd, he had gathered to watch his team take on Kenyan Premier League side Tusker F.C. for a match whose result, for once, wasn’t important. “It was the first time our song was heard,” explained Teny.
“They [the crowd] were very emotional and very touched. I thought that if we continue like this then our team could be very successful.”
We were all very emotional as it was the first time that our national team played, singing the national anthem
–Makuac Teny, Minister for Sport in the newly formed South Sudan government
The obstacles facing South Sudan are large to say the least.
Years of civil war between the largely Christian and animist south and Muslim north had left as many as two million people dead, devastating the south’s infrastructure in the process.
This is despite, or possibly because, of the fabulous oil wealth that the region has. Juba’s new national football stadium is a case in point.
“I don’t know if you can call it a stadium; it was a field without any grass on it. It wasn’t playable,” explained Stephen Constantine, an English coach who was in charge of the Sudan national team until last year.
The stadium was renovated right up until kick-off, with new grass laid and floodlights erected for the first time.
“You went down south and the boys didn’t feel they got their chance as there were no teams from the [Sudanese] first division from the south. Were they not strong enough or didn’t have the money to compete? They had the talent for sure,” Constantine said.
“They were all very very proud of where they come from. They always said South Sudan. Never Sudan … In the north they say: ‘where has all the money gone in the south?’
“It was a huge difference in terms of organization and infrastructure. It will take them a few years.”
The new South Sudan Football Federation (SSFF) has to build a league, stadiums and clubs from scratch, as well as training referees and sport scientists. But the first goal is political: recognition by FIFA and by 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 SSFF, who along with the coach held trials and managed to put a team together in under three weeks. None of South Sudan’s players who play for clubs in the north were released for the fixture as it wasn’t an official FIFA game day.
We are starting at zero. We have nothing in our hands, we are starting as God has created us
–SSFF head Benjamin Oliver
“We won independence with the help of the international community. We were clear what goal we had, we knew the tactics of the enemy,” Oliver said.
“Now I’m optimistic that we will play international football in South Sudan. The international community … will come to our aid.”
It is no coincidence that South Sudan hosted a football match so soon after announcing independence. Football fan and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously argued that national football teams were not only an essential component of a nation, but that their style of play was also reflective of a country’s identity.
“No team from a communist country (except Hungary, in 1954) has ever reached the World Cup finals or semifinals,” he wrote in the LA Times ahead of the 1986 World Cup.
“Too much stereotyped planning destroys the creativity indispensable for effective soccer.”
The link between football, identity, unity and nationhood is so strong that many newly-found states, or states divided by war, have used the soft power of football to achieve hard political aims.
The Palestinians, for example, have been recognized by FIFA since 1998, but not the United Nations. Football is seen by the Palestinian Authority as an important tool in fostering a sense of unity at home. The national football team is also one of the few visible entities allowed to fly the Palestinian flag on the international stage.
A national football team is the nation made flesh; it’s the visible manifestation of a nation
–Author Simon Kuper
West Germany and Iraq can both point to football victories — at the 1954 World Cup final and the 2007 Asian Cup respectively — as transformative moments that helped to put fractured, war-torn states back on the path towards stability.
“A national football team is the nation made flesh; it’s the visible manifestation of a nation,” said Simon Kuper, journalist and author of “Football Against the Enemy,” a book that looked at the relationship between football and politics across the globe.
“When you have 11 young men in national team shirts walk out onto the pitch, they are South Sudan. 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. In the past France and Germany could build a nation on the battlefield.”
Politicians in South Sudan are aware of the political power that football wields both at home and abroad. The SSFF is confident that its application to join CAF will be accepted and that two years later it will be able to join FIFA.
“What is important is football’s contribution to the new state,” said Minister Teny. “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.”
And what of the match itself? After a promising start South Sudan self-destructed. Captain Khamis Liyano scored South Sudan’s first international goal, but two own-goals helped the Kenyans overcome their hosts 3-1.
The result was one comparison between football and life that the South Sudanese would hope to avoid. But Benjamin was just glad that the game was even played.
“The honor goes to Kenya, the first country to hear the national anthem of Sudan. They honored us. That was a win in itself, to hear the national anthem played. Although they won 3-1, I knew the flag of Southern Sudan would be raised.”