South Sudan’s first ever World Cup qualifier is a chance to unite a divided country

Hold the champagne.
Hold the champagne.
Image: AP/Pete Muller
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Since the euphoria that marked its independence from the north in 2011, things have not been easy for South Sudan. A power struggle between president Salva Kiir and his deputy vice president, Riek Macha, engulfed the new country in a new ethnic conflict that has left thousands dead and turned millions into refugees. A tenuous peace treaty agreed upon in August is barely holding. But all these divisions will be set aside as the country gets ready to play its first ever World Cup preliminary qualifier against Mauritania today (Oct. 7)

“The national team has representatives from most of the tribes in South Sudan,” president of the South Sudan Football Association (SSFA), Chabur Goc Ali told The Independent. “We have the Dinka, we have Nuer, we have Azande and so on.”

Where politicians have dithered, soccer has at times unified. In Cote d’Ivoire, Didier Drogba and his team-mates famously pleaded to the country’s leaders to stop a civil war in 2005, leading to a negotiated peace accord. In 1969, the Brazilian legend Pele inspired a 48-hour truce between the warring factions in the Nigerian civil war so people could watch him play in the country. And now, the South Sudanese are hoping that the match against Mauritania can bring a similar sense of collective mission to their country. “Our country needs to come together as one tribe—one South Sudan,” Ali said. “At the moment, in football, we are doing that.”

The game, to be played in the country’s capital Juba, will be tough for South Sudan’s team, nicknamed the Bright Stars. Mauritania, while not one of the traditional powerhouses in African football, has been playing well lately. It beat South Africa 3-1 last month in an Africa Cup of Nation qualification match and are ranked 55 places higher than South Sudan in FIFA’s world rankings. But South Sudan is also in good form after earning its first competitive victory last month. “We are ready, totally ready,” Richard Justin Lado, South Sudan’s captain, told FIFA’s website. “We know what we have to do and we can spring a surprise.”

And Lado is also conscious that when the match kicks off at 13.30 GMT today, the stakes for him and his team-mates are much higher than normal.

“We’ve tried to make football a force for ending all the damage caused by war,” he said. “The country is tired of fighting. We want to live in peace and focus on happier things. We are going to talk about football and win this game. South Sudan deserves it.”