Football Football

Coach confident Sudan can upset odds


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, January 13 – Coach Mohammed Abdallah believes Sudan can reach the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals against the odds.

Drawn with strong title contenders Ivory Coast, defensive scrooges Angola and improving Burkina Faso in Malabo-based Group B, most pundits believe the east Africans will be lucky to escape three losses.

Abdallah, the coach when Sudan ended a 32-year absence from the biennial championship in 2008, begged to differ in interviews at home and abroad ahead of the Gabon and Equatorial Guinea-hosted tournament.

“It is a tough group and we are seeded fourth,” says the handler popularly known as ‘Mazda’, “but football is a game of surprises and I am confident of reaching the knockout stage.

“Anything can happen in the Cup of Nations as we have witnessed with football powers like Cameroon, Egypt and Nigeria failing to make it this time so who can predict what may happen?”

Sudan are alone among the 16 title challengers in having an all-local squad, which consists largely of players from Al-Merreikh and Al-Hilal, the clubs who dominate the domestic scene.

League champions Merreikh supply 10 of the 23-man squad, runners-up Hilal nine and there is one each from Al-Ittihad Medani, Al-Mourada, Al-Nur and Al-Hasahesa.

But Abdallah believes the Merreikh-Hilal stranglehold is not good for the national team because the giants face few competitive matches other than when they face off.

Another problem for the coach is the glut of foreigners — many Nigerian — who play for the 14 Sudanese top-flight clubs and he says each team has at least one imported striker.

This may explain why Sudan have consistently lacked a proven scorer and flopped at the 2008 Cup of Nations in Ghana, failing to net even once in three-goal defeats by Zambia, Egypt and Cameroon.

Sudan scraped into this Cup of Nations as the second best runners-up after finishing behind Ghana and ahead of Congo Brazzaville and Swaziland and Mohamed Bashir and Mohamed al-Tahir were the leading scorers with a miserly two each.

Abdallah says fielding locals leaves them at a disadvantage when they confront finely tuned Europe-based professionals, and the season ended last November so maintaining fitness has been a priority.

While Abdallah presents a brave public front, his frustrations were obvious in the United Arab Emirates as fellow qualifiers Tunisia toyed with the Nile Crocodiles en route to a 3-0 warm-up win.

Friendlies can mislead — especially before a major tournament as coaches experiment — but the Sudan strike force in Sharjah was understaffed and worryingly blunt.

Goalkeeper Mahjoub El Moez, defender Saif Eldin Ali, midfielder and captain Haitham Mustafa and striker Mudather Eltaib are talented and experienced campaigners, but anything except bottom place in Group B would be a surprise.