Just over a year ago, on July 9, 2011, South Sudan achieved its much-coveted independence. At the celebrations in Juba, alongside innumerable presidents, foreign minister and heads of international organizations, were Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA and Issa Hayatou, head of the Confederation of African Football. For the new country, admission to international sporting associations ranked almost as high as belonging to the United Nations and African Union. But sadly for the ambitious new country, interstate sporting clubs have membership rules that are—arguably—stricter than those that regulate statehood and democracy.

As we mentioned in our previous blog posting, The Olympic Dreams of Failed States, South Sudan will not be present at this year’s Olympics. This is because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has refused to allow an exception to the required two-year registration process for the newly formed nation.  South Sudan could only begin its registration process last year, which didn’t give it enough time to meet the IOC rules.

For many athletes, the IOC’s decision has been deeply disappointing. Take for example marathon runner Guor Marial who was told by the Olympic Committee that he should run for Sudan (i.e. northern Sudan—the country from which South Sudan has just seceded). Marial arrived in U.S. at the age of 16, a refugee from a war in which he lost most of his family. Marial refused to run for Sudan, claiming, “For me to just go and represent Sudan is a betrayal of my country first of all, and is disrespecting my people who died for freedom.” After the International Rescue Committee and others advocated on his behalf, Marial was granted the right to run as an independent athlete under the Olympic flag. So next month, South Sudanese will have someone to cheer on.

Another athlete who does not have the opportunity to play in the Olympics for South Sudan is the well-known (at least in the U.S.) basketball player, Luol Deng. Deng was nine when he moved with his parents to England from Sudan and now plays basketball for the Chicago Bulls, pulling in a salary of $71 million. Basketball has neither prestige nor money in Britain, and the British team isn’t likely to win any medals. It is a touching expression of gratitude to the country that granted his family asylum, that Deng chose to join the British team for the Olympics this year. He runs the Luol Deng Foundation, which funds basketball initiatives in Britain and South Sudan.

Among the disappointed Olympic hopefuls from South Sudan were the members of the South Sudanese wheelchair basketball team. The team, which consists mostly of amputees injured in the war, had hoped to participate in the London Paralympic Games in August and September.

There were strong hopes from organizers that the South Sudanese team would elevate Paralympics to a new level, shining a light on the causes of disability. As one article read, there was hope that Sudanese wheelchair basketball team will “use the power of sport to bring the horror of war to a global audience.”  For a video on newest country in the world’s wheelchair basketball team, see this upcoming documentary. 

Football rules the world

Even the Americans in our office understand that for much of the world football (aka “soccer”) is the king of world sport. Like most Africans, South Sudanese are football-crazy, as witnessed by the prominence given to international football dignitaries on Independence Day. In this arena, South Sudan was quicker off the mark. Having formed its own football association (SSFA), South Sudan secured Confederation of African Football (CAF) membership in February 2012 and three months later was officially affiliated to FIFA, who in this instance waived the two-year waiting period. On July 10 this year (a year and a day after independence) the South Sudanese team played its first FIFA-accredited game in Juba, drawing 2-2 with Uganda.

It was an impressive start given that South Sudan has no major football clubs, no league and only a few student teams that are sponsored by local businesses. However, the main football stadium in Juba has been recently renovated.

Northern Sudan is also football-crazy and has well-established teams, most famously the Khartoum rivals al Hilal and al Marrikh. These and other northern teams included a number of southern players—who were, prior to July 2011, nationals of one united country. Although in March this year, negotiators from Sudan and South Sudan agreed in principle to institute the “four freedoms”—freedom of residence, employment, movement and property ownership—between the two countries for their respective nationals, this has yet to be implemented. In the meantime, South Sudanese nationals in northern Sudan have been in something of a limbo, and most of them have chosen to leave for the South. Among a significant section of the ruling party, there is a vengeful mood, pressing for southerners to be stripped of all rights following their vote for secession, but public opinion in general is marked by sadness rather than bitterness.

Immediately after South Sudan’s independence, it looked as though all Southerners playing for northern teams would be forced outSudanese President Bashir publicly said that no exception would be made. Their status uncertain, and the offer of playing for South Sudan’s national team on the table, most of the southern players moved to Juba. However, a number of South Sudanese are still playing for football teams in the north. It appears that they were among the first recipients of employment cards handed out by the authorities earlier this year.

Where the vote is taken seriously

A very stern notice appears on the FIFA website dated August 3, 2010. Sudan, it tersely states, was not compliant with FIFA rules: “Following the elections that took place on 26 July, FIFA’s Emergency Committee decided not to recognise the results of the elections and to set a deadline of 15 August 2010 to hold new elections in compliance with the SFA Statutes and without any influence of third parties.” Apparently, the Sudanese government interfered in the election of the head of Sudan Football Association, imposing burdensome fees and engineering the election of its favored candidate. FIFA threatened to debar Sudanese teams from competing internationally, and to cancel Sudan’s hosting of the African Nations Cup in early 2011.

The SFA elections took place just weeks after the national elections in Sudan, in which President Omar al Bashir and First Vice President Salva Kiir were both elected with overwhelming majorities, and widespread allegations of irregularities. But while the two Presidents insisted that the legitimacy of their elections was beyond challenge, in the case of the SFA, the Sudanese Government immediately shifted into reverse gear. New elections were held, almost on schedule, yielding a new result. FIFA accepted the election results and lifted its threat of sanctions.  Sudan played its opening qualifier for the African Nations Cup against Congo, which they won 2-0 at the al Marrikh stadium in Omdurman after Ramadan breakfast on the evening of September 4, 2010.

If international verdicts on elections, and threats of sanctions, were taken so seriously, the world’s electoral map would look very different.

If soccer diplomacy is a bellwether of conventional politics, the Sudanese Government should be alarmed at the recent admission of a Darfurian refugee football team to the Viva World Cup, an international football tournament for unrecognized states, or to be precise, those that can manage to get passports, visas and tickets so that their teams can compete.   Teams in this year’s tournament included: Kurdistan (the hosts), Occitania, Western Sahara, Zanzibar, Raetia, Tamil Eelam, North Cyprus, Provence and Darfur.  Previously, all competitors were places that are seeking international recognition for statehood, some more seriously than others. So far, Darfur has not been claiming a return to its pre-1917 status as an independent state, but the 2011 initiative by I-Act,  (a U.S. based anti-genocide activist organization) supported by (among others) UNHCR created an “all-star” Darfuri team drawn from refugees in Chad. Playing in a real stadium against professional opponents for the first time, the Darfur refugee team didn’t do so well, losing its two matches 15-0 and 18-0. (Congratulations to Iraqi Kurdistan for winning the 2012 championship.)

Special thanks to Amelia Hight for research help on this essay.

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