The world’s youngest country is still finding its feet in international football. Their Cameroonian coach explains the challenges he has encountered managing the Bright Stars.
Ashu Besong chuckles when pondering his problems as coach of South Sudan. Besong, 51, sometimes fails to find the right words. It is clear that he is still warming up to his new environment. From time to time, however, he bursts into laughter. And he is in an ebullient mood after South Sudan’s landmark 1-0 win against Uganda on 16 November in the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifiers.
In Juba, and on the only professional pitch in the country, he watches the national Under-17 team train against a local academy. South Sudan’s population is young. A majority of the players in the national team are under 25. “In the long term, we have to build a programme for the grassroots,” says Besong. “There are so many young talents in South Sudan. Each club should have youth teams – Under-12, Under-15 and Under-17. We will need years to develop those talents, to become elite players.”
Besong arrived in Juba in 2019 to find the Bright Stars at number 178 on the Fifa world rankings. It is rare for budding nations to immediately ignite on the international scene. He hoped to put together a competitive team anyway. Thinking it would be relatively easy scouting, he was surprised when he encountered an altogether different scene. He was incredulous at first before accepting the reality.
“The clubs have nothing – just a name, a few balls, a few training materials and an open space where they train,” says Besong. “Most of the games are being played on these grounds. They don’t play on grass, not even on artificial pitches. I sometimes go there to scout. Even dogs pass by. It took me a few months to get that into my head.”
In the local league, Amarat United, Atlabara FC and Kator FC are among the leading clubs. Al Rabita Kosti FC, the current cup winners, represented the country in the CAF Confederation Cup. All 12 clubs in the Juba League play on dust grounds with potholes. It is a different universe from Besong’s own playing days and prior coaching experience.
Government interference and factionalism
The German-born Cameroonian featured alongside Stefan Effenberg and Bachirou Salou at Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany. He also coached Cameroon’s Under-20 national team and enjoyed a spell at Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Leicester City.
That international experience has not only fortified his coaching credentials, it has also taught him vital lessons on how to navigate football’s often fraught relationships. “Cameroon’s Under-20 did prepare me to lead any senior national team in Africa because it is not simply about football with Cameroon’s national teams. You have also got the political side of it. Of course, it is like every national team in Africa.
“The government sometimes interferes. South Sudan is a new country where there is a lot of tribalism. You will get FA people who want players from their own tribe or region included. It is how you deal with that. You can’t simply turn them down. Those are the people who give the money for camp and for air travel.”
Even so, political interference is but one of the problems that demand Besong’s attention. The professionalisation of the league and nationwide coach education are priorities to cultivate a sporting culture and advance South Sudan’s fortunes, but without much funding those objectives remain out of reach.
The country is the youngest sovereign state in the world, having gained independence from Sudan in 2011. A civil war stymied the implementation of a 2018 peace agreement, delaying social and economic progress.
Besong explains: “South Sudan still needs to invest a lot in football, which I don’t think is a priority now. The economy, even though they are facing a lot of devaluation of their currency, is at its best. Some of the citizens are returning, some investors are getting in. In other regions, outside of Juba, you still have crimes and attacks from pockets of resistance. The government has other priorities – schools, hospitals, roads. It is going to take a while. The government didn’t fund anything, not even one dollar.”
The South Sudan Football Federation (SSFA) is dependent on the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and Fifa. The African governing body allocates $500 000 per year to the young member association, but that funding was reduced to $300 000 for lack of women’s football activity. Fifa grants the federation $1 million annually as well. They have also benefited from the world federation’s development programme, receiving over $8 million since 2016.
Fifa funding is helping build the national stadium which is under construction. Besong thinks the imminent completion of the stadium will accelerate South Sudan’s development.
“It is difficult for any sponsor to come in because the facilities are not there,” says Besong. “How will you give the sponsors exposure? On the bare ground? With the stadium coming up, it will be easier to generate a little bit of income for clubs taking gate money. It will be easier to attract sponsors. It will be easier to become professional, to pay the players a salary.”
For now, Besong remains a realist. The Bright Stars have their limitations but the coach has his tricks to make them tick anyway. He doesn’t entertain fanciful ideas of possession football. He demands organisation and discipline from his team. That approach proved victorious against Uganda. Tito Okello, who plays for Kenya’s Gor Mahia, struck from the penalty spot just after the half-hour mark and South Sudan fought hard to defend that lead.
“I can’t say that we, South Sudan, are going to play offensively, stylish football,” says Besong. “No, teams would beat us 10-0 every game. We have to design a system where we can attack compactly and defend compactly. You have to work with local players to be able to play against top professionals coming from Europe and Israel.”
Besong, however, can count on the experience and know-how of players from the diaspora, especially in Australia where more than 11 000 South Sudanese live. At the start of the Afcon qualifiers, he selected 12 Australia-based players for his 32-man squad. In November, six players from the Australia contingent joined the squad. “I got two scouts in Australia,” says Besong. “They always notify me of players. Those players bring that professionalism that helps the local players to learn from them.”
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South Sudan’s coach is also looking at players in both Norway and Hungary. Every avenue is being explored to improve. The team still has a chance of qualifying for the next continental finals with two matches remaining in qualifying. In March 2021, South Sudan will play Burkina Faso and Malawi. Qualification for the Afcon, however, is not a must according to Besong, even though it would be a confirmation of the nation’s pedigree and reminiscent of the triumphs of a united Sudan in the 1960s and 1970s.
“The country and the federation are going in the right direction,” says Besong. “I am a little bit satisfied. There is a lot we can achieve and do. We need the resources. If you don’t put money into football, it will be difficult to achieve anything. When we have those resources, we will be able to compete against other big nations. For now, I am very satisfied, at the youth level, the junior national teams are doing very well. You might see one of the South Sudanese national teams in the youth African Cup of Nations. That would be a very great achievement.”