“Let’s smile – well done – very proud of you – you are really doing more wonderful things for your people and your situations than you could ever imagine. Tomorrow we win – good job – well done”. (Mark Hudson, coach of Darfur United)
Tomorrow they didn’t win. They lost 19-0 to South Ossetia. This followed on from their opening game defeat to Padania on a scoreline of 20-0 (yes, twenty), after which the above words of encouragement were delivered in the dressing room. You wouldn’t hear most teams receiving praise from their coach after losing by such a margin, but Darfur United ar not like most teams. Darfur United are different. Let’s put this in some context…
Ismail Gamaradin Abakar is Darfur United’s goalkeeper. More than a decade ago his mother was walking in the market when their village was attacked by militia. Her husband was shot and as he lay wounded, he told her to gather their seven children and escape. Ismail’s mother walked with her children for 20 days across the desert, with no food or water in a bid to reach the border of neighbouring Chad. She hid with the children during the heat of the day and travelled under the cover of darkness to avoid the roaming militia. For almost 11 years, Ismail and his family have lived in a tented refugee camp in eastern Chad.
The conflict in Darfur, a region the size of France located within the country of Sudan in northern Africa, broke out in 2003. Darfur’s indigenous non-Arab population long felt ignored by the central government of Sudan and their frustrations boiled over when two non-Arab Darfuri rebel groups launched a rebellion against the government.
In response, the government enlisted the help of some of the nomadic Arab tribes in Darfur, promising them land in exchange for their military allegiance (the Sudanese government denies this). These nomadic groups formed militias known as the ‘Janjaweed’ (‘gun men on horseback’) and began wreaking havoc throughout Darfur.
In 2004, the United States government declared the conflict a genocide, given the Arab’s systematic widespread targeting of non-Arabs in an effort to eradicate the non-Arabs from their lands.
Since the conflict began, approximately 300,000 people have lost their lives and a further 300,000 Darfuris now live in thirteen refugee camps in eastern Chad. The refugees survive on limited rations distributed by the World Food Program which amount to 1,073 calories per day (the average adult male requires 2,500 calories per day, with 2,000 being the recommended intake for an adult female).
Against this backdrop, the American aid agency i-Act has attempted to bring hope, inspiration and joy to the displaced people of Darfur through the establishment of Darfur United. The concept is an all refugee men’s football team comprised of refugees living in the camps in eastern Chad.
The project began in 2012 and following a significant fundraising effort, a squad of sixteen players travelled to the first ConIFA (Confederation of Independent Football Associations) World Cup held in Sweden earlier this month. The tournament is an opportunity for stateless peoples, outside of the remit of FIFA, to compete against each other and represent their regions.
Besides Darfur, competitors in the twelve team tournament included Padania (an area in northern Italy whose team included the brother of Mario Balotelli), Sapmi (the area inhabited by Laplanders) and Abkhazia (an autonomous republic in Georgia). The County of Nice, a region of south eastern France, overcame the Isle of Man 5-3 on penalties in the final to emerge as champions.
Building on the appearance at the ConIFA tournament, i-ACT is working with the refugee community in Darfur to develop and implement the Darfur United Soccer Academy to train the next generation of players. There are also plans to have a Darfur United women’s team competing in 2015.
“Everybody is proud, so proud. I represent my people so the world would know who we are – because I think the world is forgetting us”, – Mahamat Oumar Ignegui, a Darfur United midfielder, speaking at the ConIFA World Cup.
The side completed their tournament with a 10-0 loss to South Ossetia. However, it mattered not. Presently, the goal of the team is to raise global awareness of the situation in Darfur and to bring hope to their people.
This is certainly being achieved through their efforts. A Darfur United supporter’s t-shirt costs $10 dollars from the team website set up by i-ACT – this writer will be wearing his with pride next season.
David Sheehan, Pundit Arena.