It is a watershed month for football in the Sudan, both at national team and club level. While Al Hilal are on the back foot in the semi-final of the CAF Champions League, but still chasing a first ever continental club title for the country, the national team is one win away from a place at next year’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals.
Not since the halcyon days of the Falcons of Jediane in the 1960s and 70s has there been as much potential for Sudanese football. They play on Saturday at home against 2010 FIFA World Cup™ quarter-finalists Ghana in a winner-take-all match to determine top place in their qualifying group and sure progress to the 2012 finals in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Coach Mohamed Abdallah, on his way back from pre-match preparations in Addis Ababa, describes his side as confident and without a sense of awe as they prepare to face the might of the Black Stars.
It is for a second successive qualifying series that the two countries compete in the same group, and while Ghana won both home and away in the 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Sudan forced a draw away in Kumasi last year to set the tone for an impressive campaign that has seen them win four and draw one in five contests.
Being drawn against Ghana has proven taxing, admits Abdallah, but he says his squad have long since overcome any sense of intimidation when lined up against the professionals in the Black Stars line-up. “Ghana are always considered one of the top teams in any group, and we were ranked third [when the draw was made], but all we are thinking about now is winning,” he said about the side that Sudan have also been drawn against in Brazil 2014 qualifying.
Even though both sides might still go through as one of the best second-placed teams, Abdallah is looking for the boost of a home victory over the most impressive African outfit of the last half decade. “For my team it’s an essential match considering it’s our chance to qualify. Ghana have a lot of hugely experienced players who compete in the top leagues in the world, but my players and I have been working hard at taking on the challenge,” said the former national team captain, better known by his nickname ‘Mazda’. “I think we have convinced people that we have a strong chance to win and that we deserve to go to the finals. We are not afraid of this match or the challenge. We are very confident.”
Abdallah says Sudanese football is benefiting from a strong and well-organised domestic league and the fact that all of his players are home based. “Obviously it will be a future aim to have our top players playing for top teams in Europe, but having our players all at home also gives us a significant advantage. You have all your players in front of your eyes at all times and there is plenty of time for the national team to do its work. We can have our entire squad together outside of the dates on the co-ordinated FIFA calendar,” he explained.
But he also says the signing of top quality imports from elsewhere on the continent and from Brazil by top clubs like Al Hilal and Al Merreikh has also ensured a more competitive league. “This has lifted up the technical and tactical aspect of all our players.”
Club success in the CAF Champions League in recent years, where both Hilal and Merreikh have qualified for the group phase, also means Sudanese players have developed a confidence about their ability. “Players now have the necessary experience to be able to handle top games and they have learned to win outside (of the country).”
Abdallah says Sudan, who won the African crown in 1970 and reached the semi-finals a further handful of times, can return to their previous role among the powerhouses of African football: “We want to keep up this momentum. If we keep this growth up we can qualify for the Nations Cup on a regular basis in future years.”