Football turbulence mirroring Sudan’s political, social unrest

Football turbulence mirroring Sudan’s political, social unrest

James M. Dorsey
Football turbulence mirroring Sudan’s political, social unrest

Sudanese leader Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir, like many Arab autocrats, looks at football as one way of distracting attention from the widespread discontent in the country. AFP photo

Sudanese students are demanding the fall of President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir’s government in growing demonstrations that come 15 months after student protests nearly forced the African Football Confederation to deprive Sudan of hosting an African football tournament.

Similar to February of last year, attempts by security forces to use tear gas to dispel protestors have only boosted the demonstrators’ ranks with other population groups joining the more than week-old protests which erupted after the government announced spending cuts.

Hundreds of Sudanese from various walks of life joined the students after Friday prayers chanting the Arab world’s all too popular slogan: “The people want to overthrow the regime.” Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity related to the Sudanese crackdown against rebels in the Darfur region.

Football distracting attention from discontent
This week’s protests have already lasted longer than last year’s and it remains to be seen whether the eruption will fizzle out as it did last year. The killing of a student by security forces last year proved insufficient to give the protests the momentum witnessed in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Much like other Arab autocrats, al-Bashir looks at football as one way of distracting attention from widespread discontent in the country. If Zambia is to be believed, Sudan this month fielded an ineligible player during their 2014 Brazil World Cup Group D qualifier in Khartoum. Sudan won the match 2:0. Zambia has complained to world football body FIFA that Sudan midfielder Said Eldin Ali Masawa, who played the full 90 minutes and scored Sudan’s second goal despite being suspended. FIFA has yet to rule on the complaint. Sudanese Football Association (SFA) vice president Ahmed Tarifi has offered to resign if FIFA condemns Sudan.

Some analysts suggest that the myriad problems al-Bashir faces rather than popular discontent that struggles to maintain momentum in the absence of a viable alternative to the disliked president could ultimately prove to be his downfall. “But an economic crisis, armed conflict along the borders, a stalemate with South Sudan on sharing the oil yield and a malfunctioning political system might all render a popular uprising unnecessary, and cripple the government from within,” said Sudanese analyst Nesrine Malik in an article in The Guardian.

If Darfur is one of al-Bashir’s problems, Darfur United, the region’s fledgling football team made up of survivors of the vicious battles against Bashar-backed forces who live in refugee camps in neighboring Chad is happy to contribute its bit. The team plays in a bid to offer a violence-ridden and destitute region a ray of hope and keep it on the world’s map and serve as a reference point that allows a far-flung refugee Diaspora to maintain contact. Newly formed with the support of an American NGO, singer Macy Gray, National Basketball Association Tracy McGrady and Adidas, Darfur United earlier this month participated alongside Kurdistan Regional Government, the Western Sahara, Provence, the Tamils and Northern Cyprus in the 5th VIVA World Cup for nations world football body FIFA refuses to recognize.

“Football united people. It keeps Darfur on the international agenda. Competing in VIVA is more important than winning. We are now part of the world,” said a Darfur United player putting a good face on the fact that his team ended at the bottom of the tournament.