Sudanese Football At A Crossroads & In Need Of Fresh Ideas

Football in Sudan is in dire need of a massive re-organisation, argues's Samm Audu
These are certainly not the best of times for football in Sudan - the full international team are bottom of their World Cup qualifying group with very little hope of even making it to the Africa Cup of Nations, and only recently their team at a CECAFA Under-17 tournament were disqualified for parading over-aged players.

Al Hilal's showing in this year's CAF Champions League provides the only glimmer of hope for the country, and even that may well be rubbished should protests brought against them over the ineligibility of Zimbabwean striker Edward Sadomba be upheld.

It was only last year that this country was celebrating what appeared to be a revival of the game. The national team qualified for the Nations Cup in Ghana in style, 22 years since their last appearance at the competition.

Months earlier, both Al Hilal and El Merreikh acquitted themselves well on the continent. Al Hilal reached the semi-finals of the 2007 CAF Champions League, while El Merreikh lost in the final of the Confederation Cup to Tunisia's CS Sfaxien.

Sudan were one of the founding fathers of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and were even African champions in 1970, but since then the fortune of the country's football has been anything but satisfying.

A retrogressive government policy, which disbanded clubs in the country in the late 70s because of the unhealthy rivalry between Al Hilal and El Merreikh and re-organised them along corporate lines, took football a few steps backwards in Sudan.

"At one time we had a president who dissolved all the football structures, including football clubs and the football associations. The basic structure was all destroyed and for a year, kids were not kicking balls on the street and that really affected us," recalled Sudan Football Association (SFA) president Kamal Shaddad.

"After we came back from the Nations Cup in Ethiopia in 1976, we had a change in opinion, but most of the players and coaches had already left for the oil-producing countries during this period of instability. Clubs like Al Hilal and Al-Merreikh had to start with school kids to rebuild their teams."

Like most other African countries, the running of the sport in Sudan still leaves much to be desired. The SFA, headed by Shaddad, who has also been a prominent member of CAF, have continued to depend on meagre allocations from the government to get by, and it is clear that they need a more dynamic leadership that will shop for much-needed sponsorship cash to compliment government handouts.

In this era of modern football, players of the national team are not paid any bonuses for representing the country. They are expected to play only for the honour of their fatherland.

And in hindsight, the appointment of Englishman Stephen Constantine as the country's coach was a blunder. Constantine's predecessor, Mohamed Abdalla Mazda, told that the former India coach tried to make too many changes within a short time and this has led to the team's poor run in the qualifying tournament for both the World Cup and Nations Cup.

The Desert Hawks, as the national team are known, are made up of players from Al Hilal and El Merreikh, who have often refused to venture outside Sudan because they are content with the celebrity status they enjoy at home.

A few years ago, Haytham Tambal was tipped as the next best thing to come out of Sudan. Yet, he failed to make the grade at South African club Orlando Pirates in the 2006-07 season mainly because he could not overcome homesickness.

"The mentality of Sudanese footballers is a problem. They don’t want to play outside Sudan and now we don’t have any player abroad. One player [Tambal] went to South Africa but could not stand being away from home and so had to return. None of them has the ambition and mentality to play abroad," disclosed Shaddad.

"The social linkages are so strong that they feel isolated anytime they go out. So, anytime you play against a country that has about 17 or more foreign-based players, you don’t expect to come up tops."
Club football in Sudan is dominated by Al Hilal and El Merreikh, who enjoy the huge financial backing of two of the country's leading businessmen. Such is the dominance of these two giants, the last time a team outside them won the league crown was in 1992, when Al Hilal Port Sudan topped the table.

To further underscore this stranglehold, only two other clubs have won the league title since the competition kicked off in 1962 - Al Mourada Omdurman in 1968 and Burri Khartoum the following year.

A top coach of one of the clubs in the Sudanese top flight lamented to, "There is no competition in the league. The question season after season is, ‘Who between Al Hilal and El Merreikh will be champions?’

"I cannot remember the last time a penalty kick was awarded against Al Hilal. Both teams are pampered by the SFA and the referees. This is killing the game."

The people of Sudan love their football (there are 11 sports dailies, which cover mostly football in the country), and really deserve far more than what their teams, either at club or international levels, have produced.

In a few words, there is an urgent need to re-organise the way football is run in Sudan.

All the stakeholders - from officials to players - have to be a lot more professional, devoid of bias and sentiments, so the game in this country can again reach the dizzying heights of becoming an African football powerhouse.

Elections into the SFA are due next year, and with president Shaddad not allowed another term in office, a new man will be given the mandate to take football in Sudan to where it rightly belongs.

Samm Audu,