Sudan will compete in January's CAF Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in three decades, marking a wondrous year for a country whose club sides also upset the formbook to feature prominently in the continental competitions.
Sudan qualified at the top of their preliminary group, beating FIFA World Cup™ finalists Tunisia to the section's summit. The unexpected success put Sudan into the finals for the first time since 1974 and sparked countrywide celebrations.
At club level, Al Merreikh reached the final of the African Confederations Cup, where they lost 5-2 on aggregate to CS Sfaxien of Tunisia, and in the CAF Champions League Al Hilal surprised everyone to reach the semifinals.
Sudan coach Mohamed Abdallah, a former Sudan national team captain and legend at Al Merreikh, will lead his previously unheralded side at the Cup of Nations finals where they compete in Group C with Cameroon, Zambia and defending champions Egypt.
The 54-year-old Abdallah, who combines his national team post with that of assistant coach at Al Merreikh, talked to FIFA.com in his first international interview ahead of the Nations Cup finals.
FIFA.com: What was the secret of Sudan's success in
qualifying for the Cup of Nations after all these years in the
Mohamed Abdallah: I took command of this side in September 2004, replacing the previous coach Wojciech Łazarek. I watched his experience and he used to select so many players for his squad. Each time he selected a team, it was full of different players and it didn't work out well. He never found a settled side. When I took over I resolved to select just the best players and to persevere with them. I had a core group of 24 players and I was fortunate because they all played for clubs in the local league, with no players based outside of the country.
So, when did you first see signs of progress being made?
We started to prepare ourselves in the last World Cup qualifiers and in the two regional Cecafa tournaments. In the first year in 2005 we finished third and in 2006 we took the trophy for the first time in 28 years. I had some 18 players who always played together. We had a lot of matches too, not only in the Cup of Nations qualifiers but also the qualifiers for the Arab Cup which were held in Lebanon. When we started the Nations Cup qualifiers I set the target of beating both Mauritius and the Seychelles home and away. I knew we had to achieve that target to have any chance of qualifying.
Against Tunisia when we played them first away from home, we did really well and only lost because of a late own goal. By the time we played in the last qualifier we had a team with a lot of experience, won against Tunisia and finished top of the group. My players gained a lot of confidence, we have played a lot of games and we have had a variety of different opponents. Along with more consistency, this has been the secret.
Are you satisfied with your squad as Ghana 2008 approaches?
I'm not happy with the state of our current preparations. Since qualifying for the finals, we have had a lack of matches. Our plan is to go to Spain in early January for training and we'll play Nigeria in a friendly during this time. I am also hoping for one more game. I hope to have all my players together from 20 December when there will be no more club commitments for the players
What do you hope to achieve in Ghana?
We have ambition, but we have not played in this tournament for the last three decades. My players don't have a lot of experience at this level. But for many of them it is a great chance to go and find clubs in Europe. We know that Ghana will be great market place for the European clubs. With the right spirit I think we can do something.
Do you have any concern about your group opponents?
We have experience of playing them all before. This is an advantage for us plus we have another advantage of being able to have our players together much longer than the other countries who have so many players dotted at clubs all around the world."
After a wonder year for Sudanese football, is the burden of
expectation a little overwhelming for you now?
This is a problem. Sudan did not appear in a major competition for years and now people think we are just going to go to Ghana and take the trophy. It's unrealistic and puts unnecessary pressure on the team. But we do hope to do well and with a little luck, who knows? The great plus is the experience that we are going to pick up for the future.