There are times when sport seems very low on the list of a nation’s priorities, not least in the wake of natural disasters, humanitarian crises and armed conflicts, when the struggle just to survive takes precedence over all else.
Yet, even in times of desperate need, football can be a force for change and good, and give societies the opportunity to show the best of themselves. That is exactly what is happening in South Sudan, the youngest nation on the planet, which is readying itself for its FIFA World Cup™ qualifying debut and dreaming of moving on from its turbulent past.
Starting from scratch
South Sudan came into being on 9 July 2011, declaring itself independent following decades of armed conflict and a decisive referendum. It was on that day that a football player by the name of Richard Justin Lado made one of the more important decisions of his life, choosing to leave Sudan, the nation where he was born and had been a citizen of all his life, and to head for the land of his ancestors. “My family came from South Sudan, so it wasn’t a difficult choice for me,” he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “I just followed my heart.”
On receiving his new passport, Lado promptly became his country’s very first football captain and it was not long before he became a national idol. Just minutes into South Sudan’s maiden international match against Uganda in the capital of Yuba on 10 July 2012, he sent the 22,000 crowd delirious by scoring the Bright Stars’ first ever goal.
“We didn’t have much when we started out,” said the astute 35-year-old midfielder. “There weren’t a lot of players around and we didn’t even have a coach. We were determined to build a new country, though, and make the fans happy, which is what kept us going. As time has gone by things have got better.”
So much so in fact that the Bright Stars scored their debut win at the 13th attempt just a few weeks ago. Having started out with two draws and ten defeats, Lado and Co unexpectedly beat 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations semi-finalists Equatorial Guinea 1-0 in a September qualifier for the 2017 continental finals.
All people spoke about before was war, but now they’re talking about football too.
As far as Lado was concerned, that shock result showed how far the country has come in the four years since independence was gained: “All people spoke about before was war, but now they’re talking about football too. We’ve shown that we’re ready, that we can bring the country together behind a single objective, behind a dream.”
Football as an example
A united country – that is the dream of the South Sudanese, who two weeks ago celebrated news of the truce that has halted the nation’s bloody civil war.
Contemplating the opportunity to rebuild the country, Lado said: “The national team is a great example of unity. The players come from every ethnic group, from all over the country, and we play in harmony. Now that the war is over, more players will come and we can be the best. We have to make the most of what is happening.”
That means changing the image of a place that had become accustomed to nothing but bad news, though the Al Malakia player was keen to put things into context: “It has to be said that this isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan. The war didn’t affect the cities too much and people were able to live their lives without fear, although there were soldiers and conflict elsewhere.”
Even so, the unstable situation placed even more responsibility on the players, not least the captain himself: “I’ve spoken a lot to all the players and through those conversations we’ve tried to make football a force for ending all the damage caused by war. It’s something I’m not tired of repeating.”
The time has now come to put that unity into practice on the pitch, namely in Wednesday’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifier against Mauritania, a team that lies 89th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, fully 55 places above South Sudan.
“We are ready, totally ready. We know what we have to do and we can spring a surprise,” said the skipper. “Our coach Lee Sung-jea has created a style of play that’s based on defensive discipline and counter-attacking football, and I think we can cause some damage. We need to win, for many reasons, and we will win.”
Win or lose against the Mauritanians, Lado and his team-mates have already scored their greatest victory, as he explained: “The country is tired of fighting. We want to live in peace and focus on happier things. We are going to talk about football and win this game. South Sudan deserves it.”