One of the youngest nations in world football, South Sudan came into existence following the partition of Sudan in 2011, at which point the new country’s football chiefs got down to the task of putting a national team together. Following an uncertain start, the South Sudanese registered their very first competitive win against Equatorial Guinea in 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifying on 5 September 2015, and since then, the entire nation has been dreaming of seeing their side qualify for Africa’s showpiece event.
The continent’s new boys have followed up that maiden triumph by reaching the group phase of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying competition for a second time. They booked their place with a 6-2 aggregate win over Djibouti, with the second leg at the Juba Stadium ending in a 6-0 victory to the South Sudanese, a result that has helped propel them up eight places in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to 146th, ahead of the likes of Sudan and Gambia.
Speaking exclusively to FIFA.com, defender Athir Thomas discussed the hard road South Sudan have had to take to get this far: “It was a struggle for us to put together a competitive side to begin with, but with time and the presence of players who play for professional clubs like Al Merreikh and Al Hilal, we’ve been able to progress. Thanks to them, we’re on the right track.”
Turning his attention to the team’s progress in the global hierarchy, Thomas, who plays for Kuwaiti club Al Fahaheel, said: “We’ve jumped up the world thanks to those players and the progress the team’s made. It’s all very encouraging for South Sudan and its supporters, who’ve always been behind us. We’re going to dedicate our big wins of the future to them and I hope we can qualify for the Cup of Nations for the first time.”
Time to dream
Anything is possible in football, and South Sudan’s defensive mainstay believes they have every right to dream of a place in the continental finals: “After our historic qualification against Djibouti, our aim is to be there in the finals in 2019. The whole country is thinking about nothing else. We’ve got a match against Burundi in June and we’ll do all we can to win it and move closer to qualifying.”
Though two years have gone by since that landmark win over Equatorial Guinea, memories of it are still fresh in Thomas’s mind: “It was a big thing for us. Our rise up the ranking is a fantastic achievement for South Sudan. We’re a new team that’s just a few years old and we feel we’ve made a good start. Now, we want to go and get some better results.”
Wrapping things up, Thomas had a message for all the national team’s fans: “After the separation and all the political problems we’ve been through, we’ve managed to put a smile back on people’s faces. We’ve delivered a positive message through football, one that has nothing to do with politics.”