Juba, Sudan. The football pitch is rocky, the national goalkeeper keeps busy shooing hungry goats away from the net and the basketball team trains on a simple court behind a girls’ primary school.
While South Sudan does not yet have a sporting record, its national teams carry the hopes and dreams of the world’s newest nation-to-be.
“To see the national anthem and the flag raised over the stadium, that will be a historic moment,” said Rudolf Andrea, secretary of the South Sudan Football Association.
The country is due to proclaim formal independence on Saturday, and its first international sporting matches are scheduled for the next day, when it takes on neighboring Kenya in football while the basketball team plays Uganda.
South Sudan was left in ruins by decades of war with the north, a conflict that claimed more than two million lives and prompted almost 99 percent to vote in a January referendum to break away and forge their own nation.
Today, training facilities are lacking — both the football and basketball stadiums are being repaired for the first international games.
While the fledgling teams — including women’s sports, notably netball and athletics — may still have much to learn, they make up for that experience gap with enthusiasm.
At their first public practice, on the university’s pitch, the football team wore their red shirts emblazoned with “South Sudan” with enormous pride as cheering fans shouted encouragement.
“This means everything to us. This is something I could hardly have imagined, to have our own team,” student Gatbel Chigash said.
“We are not worried at the present time about the exact result in our first games, but I know that South Sudan has a good future in football,” Andrea said. He vowed that “after two or three years, South Sudan will be at the African Cup of Nations.”
Meanwhile, the basketball team is proudly aware that South Sudan has already produced international stars.
“Our people have played for the biggest teams in the world,” coach Deng Lek said. “Our people have never been able to play for their own country so far, so that is why having our own teams is so important.”
Perhaps most famous was the late basketball legend, Manute Bol, who was famous for his shot-blocking prowess and was talent-spotted from obscurity to play in the NBA.
Today’s stars include Luol Deng, who fled the war in the south as a child, grew up in Britain and now plays for the Chicago Bulls.
Sights are set not only on regional competition. South Sudan is already working to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, Lek said. Britain is supporting its efforts, including applications for membership of the international sporting federations needed for Olympic qualification.
The nation’s leaders hope national sports will help bind the south together.
With more than 60 different ethnic groups, divisions run deep following decades of war with the north, which exploited ethnic rivalries by backing splinter militia groups and making automatic weapons readily available.
“We hope to use sport as a means to end conflict,” Sports Minister Makuac Teny said. “It can help to get the young people to compete in matches instead of fighting, and to neutralize enmity between tribes.”