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On Dusty South Sudan Field, Children Dare to Dream

A boy takes a shot at an unseen goal on a barren field in a Juba suburb that South Sudanese children have turned into a field of football dreams.

Almost every evening, dozens of young South Sudanese churn up the dust at Buluuk Grounds, in a suburb of Juba, as they play one of their favorite sports: soccer.

The pitch they play on wouldn't even be considered one in Europe or the United States, but to the kids who run up and down the barren, litter-strewn terrain, this is a field of dreams.

On this particular evening, 11-year-old John William watches from the sidelines as the older boys play a hotly contested game. William daydreams as he watches about a day in the future when he will run onto a perfectly manicured pitch at an international match, wearing a South Sudan jersey.

“I like football because when you play football you feel fit and when you play football you can become a star of South Sudan, like those in Uganda," William tells South Sudan in Focus.

"That is why we train ourselves -- to help our country,” he says.

Sporting potential

William’s teacher at Buluuk A primary school, Peter Odwa, says many kids in South Sudan have the athletic ability to excel at sports, including football. What they lack is good equipment and training facilities.

“The students, the pupils, they like football and even volleyball for the girls. I need (equipment) in my school and also in other schools in South Sudan,” Odwa said.

A young South Sudanese boy celebrates after scoring a goal on a ramshackle football pitch near Juba.
A young South Sudanese boy celebrates after scoring a goal on a ramshackle football pitch near Juba.

The Director for Quality Promotion and Innovation in the Central Equatoria state Ministry of Education, Amos Longa Modi, says the state includes sports in the curriculum.

“Normally, an active body gives us an active mind," he says.

"When children play and are given specific games, you find that these games develop their minds, develop their body. So it is important that they must be given all the opportunities within the learning environment.”

But, he acknowledges, there is not enough equipment or sports infrastructure in South Sudan to allow children to fully develop as athletes.

Peter Baptist Abakar, the undersecretary at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, agrees. He says any sports infrastructure that South Sudan had was destroyed during the decades-long civil war that led to the creation of the young nation, and then by the current crisis in the country.

But, he says, the government is trying to put things right. There are moves afoot to incorporate sports in the national education system, and the fact that South Sudan has been admitted to some international sports organizations, including the international football federation, FIFA, will help bring in funds to develop sports, Abakar says.

Pooling pocket money

But William and other youngsters are not waiting for the government to fix things so they can play. They have already decided they will play football, in spite of the hardships they face -- including not having a ball to play with.

To overcome that handicap, the boys pooled their pocket money and came up with enough to buy a soccer ball. It’s an old, ordinary football -- not one of the new World Cup replicas -- but it's a football. It cost the boys 100 South Sudanese Pounds, or around 30 dollars.

“We get that ball with all our money; we collected 2 pounds, 2 pounds, that’s how we can buy a ball,” 14-year-old Luke Yokwe says.

Yokwe says his mother encouraged him to start playing football. Her reasoning, he says, is that she thinks one day he might be able to make a living as a football player. But Yokwe wants to go one better than just make a living at his favorite sport: he wants to be South Sudan’s answer to Côte d’Ivoire and Chelsea striker, Didier Drogba.

But this evening, Yokwe and William have to wait their turn to get a touch of the only ball they have for around 50 football-crazy kids. When the older boys kick the ball out of bounds, the younger kids take it and run with it.

As they dribble that old, ordinary football between the legs of their rivals and take a shot at an imaginary goal, they daydream about that manicured pitch they might run out onto one day, the crowd cheering, a FIFA-approved football at their feet, and a South Sudan jersey on their backs.

Yokwe’s mother will be proud as punch of her son when that happens.