Sudanese football is certainly going through something of a purple patch these days. Indeed, earlier this year the national team reached the quarter-finals of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, their best continental showing since being crowned African champions way back in 1970.
And with progress being made at international level, there are high hopes that Sudan’s club sides can follow in their footsteps, with both Al Hilal and Al Merreikh still in contention in the CAF Champions League’s Round of 16.
The closest any Sudanese club has come to winning Africa’s premier club competition has been a spot in the final, with Al Hilal managing the feat twice. These appearances came in 1987 and 1992, when they were beaten by Egypt's Al Ahly and Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca respectively. In 2011 they looked likely to do it again, only be to be comprehensively ousted 3-0 in the semi-finals by eventual champions Esperance of Tunisia.
In their first Round of 16 match against ASO Chlef, Sudan’s most-decorated club failed to capitalize on home advantage, having been held to a 1-1 draw. However, ahead of their trip to Algeria for the return leg, staff and players seem confident in their ability to get the win that will send them into the next round.
“All the players are determined to give the supporters something to cheer about after our draw at home,” stated the head of Al Hilal’s tour party, Ahmad Adam. “We want to return from Algeria bearing good news: something to make everyone in Sudan happy.”
Al Hilal have enjoyed an excellent season in the Sudanese league thus far. Their 3-0 defeat of Al Nil on 7 May leaves them top of the table, four points clear of rivals Al Merreikh. Not that everything is running smoothly in the camp, despite this success. Much to supporters’ chagrin, star player Haitham Mustafa has been left out of the squad travelling to Algeria after a high-profile spat with French coach Diego Garzitto, caused by the veteran’s frequent absences from training.
“Mustafa does not turn up for training sessions regularly,” said Garzitto. “He has missed 32 of 67 sessions, so I’m making his place available to more committed members of the squad.”
Sudani league title holders Al Merreikh were handed a very tough tie in the CAF Champions League Round of 16, squaring off against four-time tournament winners TP Mazembe. The Congolese outfit are also the first African side to have reached the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, when they lost 3-0 to Inter Milan in 2010.
Given their opponents’ pedigree, it was little surprise that the Sudani club lost 2-0 in Lubumbashi in the first leg. Despite the scoreline, their Brazilian coach Heron Ricardo Ferreira expressed his satisfaction with the team’s performance and insisted Al Merreikh can still qualify.
“I urge the fans to get behind us for the return leg,” Ferreira said. “Wiping out a two-goal deficit isn’t impossible and their support will be a vital if we are to succeed.”
Al Merreikh are still relative newcomers to the tournament, with the first of their seven appearances coming in 2001. Since then the side have only reached the last eight once, back in 2009, though supporters will be hoping that their last league game - a 3-0 trouncing of Al Hilal Port Sudan - will have given their players the confidence to repeat the feat.
The availability of Ivorian striker Remi Adiko, who missed the Al Hilal Port Sudan game through injury, remains in doubt. That said, the club physio has reported that the forward is on the verge of recovery, which suggests he may well make the flight.
In the event that Adiko is not available, Ferreira will have to rely on the abilities of veteran international striker and captain Faisal Agab. The latter has won the league five times and scored a record 104 domestic goals over the course of his 20-year career.
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Can one of the two Sudanese sides emulate the successes of the national team and challenge for the CAF Champions League crown?