By Lolade Adewuyi
Joyful celebrations filled the air when South Sudan defeated Ethiopia in Omdurman in the semi-final of the East African regional CECAFA U20 championship in November. The win meant qualification for their first-ever continental tournament, the CAF U20 Africa Cup of Nations. It was the culmination of years of hard work after the country's decade-long civil war.
"The whole of the squad fell on the pitch and cried. We were so emotional. We couldn't express the happiness we felt," the captain, Joseph Loro, told DW. "It was the greatest thing that had happened in our lives."
South Sudan had taken two big leaps in football in one year. Less than a month prior, the country's U17 team had punched their ticket for the continental championship through the regional qualifiers. Their football-crazy country was in raptures.
Inspired by the feat of the U17 boys, Loro said his team were determined they could succeed as well, and they fought hard. He is happy to have surprised onlookers and placed his country on the football map.
"Lanky Loro," who stands at six feet four inches tall (1.97 metres), and his teammates represent a new generation who hope that football can help them change the narrative of a country known for the conflicts that have displaced millions of its citizens.
South Sudan's civil war claimed more than 400,000 lives after its independence from Sudan, as political groups turned on each other in a fight for power. Loro's father was sadly one of the early victims.
"Everybody had somebody that was affected by the conflict, but we came together to represent our country and forget about the past," said the 18-year-old central midfielder, who left to be raised by his mom.
In football, he found his path to a livelihood. After being discovered playing in a Juba neighbourhood by coach Bilal Felix, now the U17 national team trainer, Loro joined an academy from where he was signed by local club side Munuki FC, who paid his fees through secondary school. His salary now helps his family financially.
When he was called up to the national team, he had already developed leadership skills. He was named captain of a side that included players from South Sudanese communities in Kenya, Uganda, and Egypt, who had been displaced by the civil war.
"Football brings people together, and it crosses ethnicities. People playing on the pitch don't ask themselves, 'where do you come from?' They're just teammates,'' said Augustino Maduot, president of the South Sudanese Football Association. "This is bringing hope for our unity and peace. It is a vehicle and a tool to break all the divisive things that have come into our society."
The years of fighting took its toll on the country, leaving football and other cultural activities underdeveloped. But since the signing of a peace accord in 2020, South Sudan has slowly taken big steps, despite the need for more infrastructure.
"It is clear that development is affected when there are problems, and this is what happened. Sport is not a priority when there is a civil war," said Maduot. "Now, with the current peace, things have become calm, and we can reach all our organisations and areas for the players to play."
Maduot's work has centred on grassroots and youth football, women's football development, and technical training for coaches and other officials. The country also needs more infrastructure, like quality pitches required for football growth.
But the war is not the only thing responsible for the lack of infrastructure.
Former SSFA president Chobur Goc was banned from football for 10 years by Fifa after he enriched himself with Fifa grants to the tune of $497,000 in 2019.
The South Sudanese have an abundance of football talent. Four members of its diaspora played at the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar. Garang Kuol, Awer Mabil, and Thomas Deng were in the Australia squad, their families having fled the country during the independence war with Sudan. Chelsea midfielder Denis Zakaria, whose father is South Sudanese, was a member of the Swiss squad.
"South Sudanese are known for being resilient and have this talent for playing football. We have the talent. We need the opportunity to give to these young ones," Maduot said.
Maduot hopes that their youth teams' growth will be sustained to build a senior squad that can finally play at the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup. "We have a dream. Whether it will be achieved remains a matter of time and place," he admitted.
Loro hopes to lead his side to the U20 AFCON in Egypt in February. The South Sudanese have been drawn into Group B with Uganda, the Central African Republic, and Congo.
The U20 AFCON is a big shopping window for talent, and a good performance would mean much for the South Sudanese boys to be seen by scouts.
"Some of our opponents don't even know where our country is on the map," said Loro. "We are not going to relax, and we're not going to stop our movement. Our mission is to go and make sure we qualify for the U20 World Cup in order also for us to heap pressure on our U17 team to go and fight."
A good tournament will inspire all the people of South Sudan.