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Steady Signs Of Progress In Sudan
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Steady Signs Of Progress In Sudan

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Despite being the largest country in Africa, mention of Sudan is unlikely to register much of a response from the general public. Aside from the long-running conflict in the western province of Darfur, it’s probably fair to say that many people’s knowledge of Sudan revolves around episodes of Dad’s Army and Lance-Corporal Jack Jones’ (Clive Dunn) reference to how the “Fuzzy Wuzzies” in the Sudan never liked the cold steel of the bayonet……”They don’t like it up ‘em!”

Sudan’s football achievements over recent years have certainly been nothing of note, with the national team having underachieved for the past three decades. Sudan did actually host the first ever African Cup of Nations in 1957, losing to eventual champions Egypt in the semi-finals. It has to be said that the achievement in reaching the last four of the competition is not all it might seem, with only the four founding nations of CAF (Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and South Africa) having entered the tournament. Indeed, the South Africans were also disqualified for failing to send a multi-racial squad to Khartoum.

Sudan had greater success when they hosted the finals for a second time in 1970, beating Ghana 1:0 in the final. They have only qualified for the two finals of two tournaments since then though, the last time being in Ethiopia back in 1976.

Now it seems that the good times are back, with national team coach Ahmed Mohamed recently steering the country to the finals of the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 32-years, topping Group 4 ahead of regional heavyweights Tunisia and the minnows from the Seychelles and Mauritius. They actually secured top spot after beating the Tunisians 3:2 in their final group game in Khartoum.

As yet there are no players in the Sudanese squad that will register with anyone who doesn’t follow African football fairly closely, but that could change once the finals getting underway in January, with perhaps playmaker Faisal Agab (having bagged five goals in qualifying) and striker Haytham Kemal Tambal (who chipped in with another three) being the most likely to make a wider impression.

The Sudanese have been given a tough draw for the finals in Ghana, placed in Group C alongside Cameroon, defending champions Egypt and Zambia. The opening game against the Zambians looks to provide them with their best hope of picking up a victory but, with a current FIFA World Ranking of 105, progress beyond the group stage for Sudan has to be considered unlikely.

A further sign of the improvement in Sudanese football has come with the success of their club sides in African cup competitions this term. Al Hilal reached the semi-finals of the African Champions League, where they were a little unfortunate in going down 4:3 on aggregate to Tunisia’s Etoile Sahel, who went on to win the trophy. Al Merreikh actually went one better in the African Confederations Cup, winning through to the final against Tunisia’s CS Sfaxien, although winning the tie and the trophy is probably already beyond them, having gone down to a 4:2 home defeat in the 1st leg.

Al Hilal and Al Merreikh are very definitely the “Big Two” in Sudanese football, with both clubs benefiting from private investment from businessmen that has enabled them to bring in foreign players to mix with the best local talent. Passionate home support has been another major factor in the achievements of the two domestic rivals in continental club competition this year, although neither has been able to replicate anything like their formidable home form on their travels.

The past year has been an excellent one for football in Sudan and, if current levels of progress can be maintained both on and off the pitch, they could soon become a major force in the region again.

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