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Sudan footballers hope for revolution boost

“There are no facilities or the equipment we need,” said Salim, son of a farmer, before booting a ball across a dirt pitch in a Khartoum neighbourhood.

KHARTOUM, Sudan, Jul 30 – He has no kit or support system but 17-year-old footballer Emad Salim hopes Sudan’s uprising will bring a boost to his beloved sport and help its players step onto the world stage.

“There are no facilities or the equipment we need,” said Salim, son of a farmer, before booting a ball across a dirt pitch in a Khartoum neighbourhood.

“I need shoes, equipment and proper training, but there’s nothing.”

At sunset, friendly football matches are played on patches of open ground across the capital, with teenagers like Salim kicking up clouds of dust.

The pitches have no markings, are full of holes and the goal posts are almost always without a net.

“There is nobody to motivate me,” said Salim, a resident of Tuti Island, where the Blue Nile and White Nile meet in the capital.

“I hope the revolution changes this,” he said, referring to the months-long mass protest movement that led to the ouster of longtime president Omar al-Bashir in April.

Many say Bashir’s three decades of iron-fisted rule sidelined the sport — a national pastime.

There are no competitive youth leagues in Sudan, meaning young players like Salim can only play in friendly matches between local clubs.

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Their skills are further cramped by poorly maintained pitches, which cause regular injuries that often end many talented players’ careers before they even take off.

The matches are “disorganised” and players lack any kind of training or management, said the vice president of the Sudanese Football Association, Al-Fatih Bani.

Local clubs avoid improving facilities because there are no competitive leagues for youths, he said.

While there are some 30 well-maintained pitches in the country, they are privately owned and open only to the elite, Bani added.

– Poor record –

Sudan has never qualified for the World Cup, even though the country was a pioneer of the sport on the continent.

Along with Egypt and Ethiopia, it helped to found the African Football Confederation, but has only won the African Cup of Nations once in 1970 when it hosted the tournament.

The last time Sudan qualified for the continent’s biennial tournament was in 2012, even though it has been expanded to a 24-nation format.

In 1989, Omdurman-based Al-Merrikh became the only Sudanese team to win an African club trophy.

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Sudanese football fans are often seen sporting the shirts of international clubs instead of their national team, the result of its poor record brought on by decades of official neglect, according to Bani.

“Many talented players do not get the opportunity to improve and advance,” said Monzer Hassan, a coach of a youth team.

“A complete lack of football academies deprives these talented players from honing their skills,” he said, adding that every player dreams of playing for the two leading Sudanese clubs, Al-Hilal and Al-Merrikh.

A Sudanese player has never been picked up by a European club, said Bani, but the country is a lucrative destination for foreign players as Sudanese clubs are hungry for professionals.

“Bashir’s regime hurt the sport immensely,” said Mohamed Harun, an Al-Hilal board member.

“His Islamic regime considered football a tribal activity that did not deserve support or investment.”

For those like Salim or Bani, the revolution that ousted Bashir could herald a turnaround.

“I hope the revolution gives a strong push to football in Sudan,” said Bani.

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