Sudanese clubs Al Merreikh and Al Hilal stunned the rest of Africa this year when they advanced to the semi-final of the showpiece event of African club football. But when it comes to the national team, success stories have been few and far between for the nation's supporters.
As a founding member of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), Sudan played an important role on the continent from the late 1950s to the early '70s. They finished third in the inaugural CAF Africa Cup of Nations tournament in 1957 – albeit out of three teams that participated – were runners-up in 1959 and 1963, and won the tournament on home soil in 1970. They also played at the finals in 1972 and 1976, but after that an extremely lean spell followed and they had to watch on the sidelines as the best teams competed for the title as African champions.
Their long wait for a return to continental relevance finally came to an end in 2008, when they qualified for the finals in Ghana but crashed out in depressing fashion, losing all three group matches and conceding nine goals without scoring. Four years later, though, they sent out a signal of their intentions by reaching the last eight of the AFCON.
The Falcons were one of the first African countries to enter the qualification campaign for the FIFA World Cup™, having competed for the 1958 finals, but they have always fallen short. It's a weakness that makes the quest for Russia 2018, which starts in the second round of CAF qualifying against Zambia on 11 November, all the more difficult. With only the winners from the two-legged matches qualifying for the third round, there will be a lot of pressure on the players to get a result.
Defender Ali Gafar, who was involved in the 2014 campaign, when the Falcons finished bottom of their group which also included Zambia believes they will have a chance though. “One of the reasons why we are not as strong as we should be is because too few players train overseas. We have talent, but not many have been given the chance to go abroad and even if they do, they often have problems adapting because of language, climate or culture.”
The Al Merreikh player said he believes the team would also benefit from playing more matches as a national team. “If we played more friendly matches, we would learn better match management. As it is, when we play competitive matches, we show a lack of experience sometimes.”
There is, however, some growth in Sudanese football that could indicate the crest of a future wave. For one, the Falcons achieved a morale-boosting 1-0 victory against Sierra Leone in a qualifier for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in June. Possibly even more important though is the success that the country's leading clubs Al Merreikh and Al Hilal had in the CAF Champions League. Although both failed in their quest to reach the final, their appearance in the round of the last four gave fans some hope and joy.
The two clubs, whose presidents are successful businessmen, have virtually made the domestic league and cup their own – very rarely allowing another club a look in. With the money made available by the owners, the clubs have managed to lure not only high profile coaches like Otto Pfister and Diego Garzitto to the country, they have also been able to sign top players. Jean-Paul Abalo (Togo), Haitham Mrabet and Abdelkarim Nafti (Tunisia), Elijah Tana (Zambia) and legendary goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary, who won the Africa Cup of Nations four times with Egypt, all played in Sudan.
For Gafar, the dominance of the two Omdurman giants comes with both positives and negatives. “Thanks to them, Sudan has become one of the powerhouses of African club football. The proof is that the country has four places in the two African club competitions. But the level of the Sudanese league is average because there is always a gap between the top four teams and the rest. This shows the lack of professionalism at all levels. There are only a few clubs who have the financial resources to mount real challenge at the top level."
Diego Garzitto, who has coached both clubs and currently is in charge of Al Merreikh, sees football in the country as improving on the continental level. "There is indeed a clear progression of Sudanese football, which is reflected in particular in the African competitions. Everybody knows about the two big clubs, but there are also others like Ahly Shendi or Al-Khartoum. However, the league needs to find balance. It is a two-way stream. On the one level, you have the big clubs, but there are too many clubs who are struggling to fight for anything other than their survival.”