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Clash of the titans

Sudan is gearing up for a historic referendum on Sunday. Meanwhile, life goes on as normal, at least on the football pitch.

Clash of the titans... Two great warring factions finally meet... The speculation, intrigue and preparation surrounding the whole event have been intense. The pressure has been allowed to build to almost unsustainable levels, forced by initial delays and a long and painful history on both sides. The wider world is worried it might not happen at all, or if it does, that it will all go disastrously wrong.

That’s right –Mirikio FC and Rokon FC have today finally met in conflict. An epic ‘Town’ versus ‘Village’, ‘here’ competes with ‘there’, ‘us’ against ‘them’.

OK. Melodrama over. It is not – despite what I might like to imagine – an epic struggle. It is not a sporting pinnacle – think Sunday league with a third of the players without shoes; and one in which the Hackney Marshes has been replaced by a dusty hinterland opposite the police checkpoint which marks the edge of town.

It is not a gentle awakening from the trenches at dawn to have a kick-about in no-man’s-land, next day shelling to start again. Not a quiet settling of differences through the (occasionally) beautiful game. It is not this because no such divide has ever existed. Not between these two teams. Despite the fact that it might be a writer’s (or international politicians’) dream to be able to wax lyrical about a peaceful match between two halves of a divided country, a divided community struggling with itself – it is not so here. No fundamental divide. No real grudge. No citizen versus rebel. No victims against aggressors. It is just normal football.

Excellent. Boring normal football. A game in which everyone is Maradonna, Beckham, Kaka and Cantona rolled into one. It would be glorifying to call it a scrap, ‘put in from the far corner – fluffed as the now-striker is blinded by dust kicked up from the schoolgirls standing behind the posts’. A seething mass of young men trying very hard to exceed their evolved ability, and all desperately hoping that no-one notices when they fluff a set piece (they do of course). It’s uniform football, what most of us play – and that’s why it’s so important.

Normality, for a while
It’s important because it’s normal. It was arranged at the last minute, team strips don’t match and the linesmen don’t have flags. There’s no fundamental difference between the sides (they just happen to be from two villages about six miles apart); spectators watch, hopelessly biased, but only because it’s their son or brother who’s just been cruelly denied by the whistle. In all, universal football. Rokon or Rio, it’s all the same offside (or not, as it inevitably may be).

Normality like this is so important for a place like Southern Sudan; we really need to focus on it wherever we may find it. Just boys playing football. It’s normality like this that can start to work against the chaos caused by a decade-long civil war and the myriad problems of a nation that is only just being allowed to start to develop. Normality that might hopefully remind people that if push comes to shove, it’ll be worth drawing inspiration from what they know the community can be when it wants to. That is: organized, cohesive, fair and passionate – if currently lacking in technical finery.

Another normal that I can get excited about is the absence of NGOs. No acronyms were needed to run this game, no seminar on youth empowerment or workshop on grassroots involvement of the community. That’s not to try to diminish the important work of events like those, but it’s refreshing to see something (however minor) run by young people in the area; without the necessity of the infectious enthusiasm of a fleeting outside involvement. That is apart from the Catholic Father who serves as referee, perhaps a story for another day.

I can only speak for what little obvious fragments of normal I have seen, but I do really hope that soon people everywhere will have the pleasure of watching lots more poor quality football.

Tim Seers is currently working as a teacher at two schools just outside Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, in Central Equitoria state. He starts at a London Medical school next year.

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