South Sudan draw first football international

Juba, 11th July

South Sudan’s first FIFA-recognised international football match ended in a 2-2 draw with Uganda last night, a day after the fledgling country celebrated the first anniversary of its independence.

Such was the excitement about the game that an hour before kickoff I could already hear the cheers from my house in Hai Malakia, a good 10-minute walk away from the Juba stadium. When I arrived at the game, the road outside the ground was so log jammed with traffic that there was barely space for bodas – Juba’s largely informal motorcycle taxi service – to squeeze between the gaps.

The small stadium was already at capacity, but those who had made it in reached down from their ‘seats’ on top of one of the stadium walls to give a helping hand to their friends as they scrambled up the wall from outside the ground.

A handful of fans stood on their cars outside the stadium, craning to see into the ground, still more clambered up an enormous advertising hoarding on the opposite side of the road from the ground. Some perched precariously on the top, while others grabbed onto the side, pumping the air with their free hand as I walked past.

At the entrance to the stadium the scene was chaotic. A crowd of people still hoping to get into the ground swarmed around the iron gates while security officials thrashed their batons at any sign of people trying to push through. (Except, that is, the white Westerners – known locally as kawadjas – who were ushered through with calls of ‘VIP, VIP’.) Such was the chaos that the game was delayed by an hour while the Ugandan team bus found a safe way to offload its players.

It was always going to be hard for the football itself to match the occasion. The game was played out on what must now be the bumpiest of international pitches, which didn’t lend itself to stroking the ball around. A couple of days before the game, my friends James and Sean had witnessed the team practising on an uneven, grassless piece of land in a busy market district of Juba known as Conyo Conyo.

Uganda experimented with a young line-up in preparation for a forthcoming under-23 international game, while South Sudan had to have their goalkeeper flown in from India and their captain and another player brought from Sudan.

But the game was entertaining nonetheless, with good chances for both sides. While the early part of the game was notable largely for the number of shots blasted wildly off target from promising positions, the goals soon started to come.

South Sudan went 1-0 down before restoring parity with what Alan Hansen would probably have described as a ‘soft’ penalty. Uganda had a player sent off – apparently for dissent – but still managed to reclaim the lead, before South Sudan secured the draw with a headed goal in the second half.

The pitch invasion that I had expected to engulf me as I sat in the sand by the touchline didn’t happen – largely I suppose because the fans in the main stand were watching the game through a wire mesh fence, under the watchful eye of riot police wearing full body armour and carrying batons and tear-gas guns.

But (unlike the televised national talent show I was at last week) there was never any threat of real trouble at the game, despite Ugandan fans – who must have equalled if not exceeded local fans in number – and South Sudanese freely mixing in the crowd.

So all in all a solid start for South Sudan’s new team, who plan to play in east and central Africa’s regional championship later this year. South Sudan oyee!

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.