​​How South Sudan prepared basketball heroes for historic world cup debut

​​How South Sudan prepared basketball heroes for historic world cup debut
South Sudan basketball team has the highest chance of qualifying to represent Africa in this year’s World Cup.

In 2017, just six years after South Sudan had attained her independence, the men’s national basketball team was ranked 137 in the FIBA world rankings. And just five years later, in 2022, the country has risen 74 places, position 63 in the global index.

On Sunday, South Sudan, a country that barely existed slightly over a decade ago and that endured a sequence of war, pulled the unthinkable — a fast of a kind to the dismay of the global audience that is about to have a proper feel of the giants of the Nile.

It took a couple of hands to pen this piece of history, though the majority of its authors are players—some of whom had never stepped foot in the world’s youngest nation but are now playing top basketball in the prestigious American NBA league. Some grew up on the shores of Australian beaches, while others can barely speak their mother tongue but are united by their love for the motherland.

The Bright Stars punched their maiden ticket to the FIBA World Cup. The victory over Senegal, in the first match of the final rounds of qualifiers, threw the entire nation into a frenzy—a celebration that will climax at the Dr John Garang Mausoleum when a section of the history-making squad mingles with citizens in celebration of their historic appearance on the global stage.

Journey of endurance

How they pulled that off is what some are still wondering. But for coach Royal Ivy, a New York native who also works as an assistant coach for the Brooklyn Nets, and his players, they understand that this exploit was not handed to them on a silver platter. They worked for it. People sacrificed their own resources and other resources, as well as their time, while some put their jobs on the line.

It is a clear demonstration of what self-belief, determination, and perseverance can do. The sacrifices saw captain Kuany Kuany’s contract cancelled by his Finnish club, Karhubasket.

Kuany, a captain par excellence, led from the front. He is one of only five players from the initial squad of 19 to have played in all three rounds of the qualifiers.

Others who achieved the nine-game feat alongside Captain Fantastic include Nuni Omot, Mareng Gatkuoth, Deng Acuoth and Padiet Wang.

But playing nine games for your country came with its fair share of pain. Kuany’s club had to terminate his contract, citing a breach of the club’s injury policies. However, for the majority of these players, this is simply a reflection of the difficult decision that had to be made in order for the World Cup dream to come true.

“You’ve made us proud,” Benjamin Marial, Minister for Presidential Affairs, said when he received the team in Juba on Tuesday.

Away from the perennial violence that has once threatened to bring the country to its knees, the victory by the triumphant basketball team put the name of South Sudan in global focus—albeit for good reasons.

“We have been known as people who fight among themselves. Our image has been tarnished, and that is why people are actually not valuing us,” said sports minister Albino Bol.

“We have the responsibility to change the narrative of our country,” noted Albino while appreciating the power of sports in building unity and cohesion in society.

“We have the potential to do that,” he added.

Journey to qualification

Back to the qualifiers, the journey to Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia did not start yesterday. It has been a long trek full of pain and sacrifices. When things weren’t going well for the team, the ever-patriotic South Sudanese fans cried. It was time to make merry, they joined in ecstatic celebration. The unity of purpose.

In Egypt, for example, hundreds of fans were blocked from being part of the history due to the Egyptian Basketball Federation’s decision to restrict entry to just 200 fans for each country.

The workaholic president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation, Luol Deng, was furious.

“This is a great story, and we’ve been robbed today, of celebrating with our fans who came all the way out here,” a fuming Luol said in a post-match interview.

“FIBA should be ashamed of whatever has been going on this week…how teams are being treated.”

Success has many fathers. Coach Ivy, on the other hand, gives all the credit to the players.

“They came out here and competed,” Ivy said after defeating Egypt 85-65 in the second round of qualifying last August.

In the first round of qualifiers, they sailed past Cameroon, African champions Tunisia, and Rwanda. The two tournaments’ first round of qualifiers was played over a period of nine months between November 2021, February 2022, and June 2022.

Then came round two, where they would once again beat Tunisia.

South Sudan progressed to the last 12 after finishing among the top three teams from the last window. They would then join three other teams to create two six-team groups, carrying with them all their results from the first round.

In the Second Round, each team will play each new team in their group during two tournaments played over two event windows scheduled in August 2022 and February 2023.

They easily defeated Senegal, their only defeat in the qualifiers, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and host Egypt in the final phase to secure the five tickets to the Asia-organized tournament.  

“I have brought a message of president (Salva Kiir), a message of congratulation for a job well done,” Marial said amidst thunderous claps and ululation from the crowd.

“Now we are sending a message to champions of America, the champions of Asia and the champion of Europe, walk out, the tsunami is coming,” added Marial.