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Feb 1, 2012

Sudan - Africa's newest sweethearts

East Africa had only one representative at the African Nations' Cup and most thought it wasn't a very good one. At least, not recently.

Having not made an appearance in the event for 32 years between 1976 and 2008, Sudan returned four years ago to endure a treble of 3-0 thrashings. Then, they disappeared again only to come back stronger. Not only did they end their goal drought in a 2-2 draw with Angola but they progressed to the last eight after stunning Africa's fourth ranked team, Burkino Faso.

Sudan's progression to the quarter-finals is not only justification for building a national team in a domestic league, it is also a show of strength for a footballing country that has withstood two Civil Wars, a coup and ongoing humanitarian crisis. There may not be food in Darfur, but there is football.

In spite of their numerous political and economic issues, Sudan have managed to spend time and money readying their team for this tournament as they search for a repeat of the glory days of 1970 and before, when they were one of Africa's powerhouses. The current ANC has dismantled that theory to some degree, from the qualifying stages when minnows Botswana became the first team to book their place, to the current last-eight line-up, which is without Senegal.

Those countries which have emerged from the shadows seem to have one thing in common: continuity. Sudan have stuck with the same coach, Mohamad Abdalla Mazda, and his team since 2006. They have allowed him to mould his own squad, even if he has to select players who don't often get a regular game for their club, and the only interference from government was actually a positive one.

Sudan's president, Omar Al Bashir, has taken a particular interest in sport, and football, in recent times. On one of his visits to Qatar, the Sudanese president was able to get a guarantee from the Emir that Qatar would provide funding and a training base to Sudan's ANC team. In January, Sudan trained in Doha, matches were organised against Qatari clubs and there was even talk of a subsidy to secure a more high-profile coach.

Mazda remains in charge, though, and his intricate knowledge of the Sudanese system has resulted in a national team that has thrived. All but four of the ANC squad came from Sudan's two biggest clubs, Al Merreikh and Al Hilah, who contest one of the continents greatest derbies. Both are institutions, with histories going back 103 and 81 years respectively. Al Merreikh even produces its own sports newspaper, which has printed daily since 1965.

The popularity of the two clubs has meant that there is a glut of players, from all over the continent, plying their trade there and some of the members of the Sudanese national squad do not get regular game time. It was a concern the coach said he monitored carefully. "All 14 teams have at least one foreign striker," he told the BBC. But, both clubs have turned professional in the last few years, meaning that the local players who do come through are of a decent quality.

Mudather El Tahir, whose double strike ensured Sudan will play in the last eight, is a product of Al Hilal, for whom he has played 62 times. He demonstrated flair and enterprise in his ability to find the back of the net but like of lot of his team, has an unpolished edge that could cost Sudan going forward.

Not yet as tight a unit as champions are deemed to be, Sudan have been reckless, and at times lazy, in defence, perhaps a sign of their inexperience. With an average age of 24, they are one of the youngest teams in the competition and their coach believes they are rapidly earning respect greater than their rankings (Sudan are the second lowest ranked team in this year's ANC) and building up the reputations of a team that was once a giant in the footballing arena.

Sudan have had to start as mere men but are beginning to create a legacy of their own. When Libya were knocked out it was believed the chance of a fairytale story were over but Sudan have taken their place, albeit in a slightly different fashion.

Like the North African country, Sudan faced internal strife of their own, but unlike them the conflict did not influence football. With the secession of South Sudan, one would imagine the issue had dripped down to sporting level as well. What if, for example, someone played for the national team but would no longer be a national because they were from the South?

That theory was never tested. The Sudanese national team did not have a single player from the south in their ranks as most of the clubs are concentrated in the north, and if you ask people from the new state, is a reflection of the ongoing discrimination that has affected people there. Unlike in Libya, a revolution of sorts had absolutely no real impact on Sudan and its football. Subliminally it may have, but South Sudan is now bidding for FIFA membership and the chance to compete as an independent nation.

At one point people in Sudanese football spoke about sport being a vehicle for peace between the two regions. Those thoughts have long been shelved as the North and the South look to build separate futures. Instead, the focus for Sudan is on something else - a shot at a first ever World Cup appearance in Brazil in 2014. It remains a long shot, as they must win a group which features Ghana, Zambia and Lesotho, but so did their progression in this tournament.

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