Wed, Sep 09, 2015 - Page 19 News List

FEATURE: Sudanese women strive to build national soccer team

AFP, KHARTOUM

Sudanese female soccer players from “The Challenge” team take part in a training session at a pitch near Khartoum’s airport on Aug. 13.

Photo: AFP

On a dirt pitch next to Khartoum airport, Sara Edward watches the players she hopes to mould into Sudan’s first national women’s soccer team hone their skills, kicking up clouds of dust.

Her 15 players have taken the name “The Challenge” because of the obstacles they face — no equipment, no funding and the suspicions of Sudan’s Islamist authorities.

“We hope this team will become an international team,” Edward said as she watched the women practicing while jet planes screamed overhead.

“We’re no worse than anyone else. We just lack opportunities,” the 29-year-old said.

Darting about the pitch in her worn green jersey and shorts, giving instructions and encouragement, the diminutive Edward is the motor behind the team.

Born in Juba, she became a citizen of South Sudan when it broke away in 2011 and cannot play for The Challenge if they do win national status.

However, she has still pressed on with the team, which she joined in 2001, when it was formed in Khartoum’s Comboni College.

As dusk falls at the training session, temperatures hover at about 40oC.

All but two of the players train in shorts and t-shirts, which Edward thinks may be partly responsible for their difficulties.

“Sudanese society says women are not supposed to wear shorts,” Edward said. “In other sports, such as volleyball, they make them wear long trousers when they play.”

In 1983, Sudan’s government implemented Shariah Islamic law and when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir seized power in a 1989 Islamist-backed coup, his government vowed to continue implementing it.

Sudan’s criminal code bans women from wearing “indecent” clothes with a punishment of 40 lashes or a fine.

In July, a group of 10 young Christian women from the South Kordofan region were arrested for wearing skirts and trousers.

Four were fined, while one was sentenced to 20 lashes for wearing trousers to court for her sentencing, which she is appealing.

The law has never been applied to The Challenge’s players, but Edward suspects the government’s Islamist leanings have contributed to the neglect of women’s soccer.

In 2011, the team moved to pitches of the Sudanese Football Association, which Edward said pledged to help with training and equipment.

The association did not comment directly on their kits, but never delivered on their promises, so the team moved on and have since been buffeted from training ground to training ground.

Edward said she approached the association and the Sudanese Ministry of Sports offering to change their kit to something less likely to cause offense, but to no avail.

“Until now they say: ‘Inshallah [“God willing”] we will help,’ but nothing has happened,” Edward said.

Sudanese Football Association executive secretary Hasan Abu Jabal said there are women’s teams in universities and some schools and others are being formed.

“We are trying to support them to practice the sport according to rules that take into account social customs,” he said.

The Challenge has also faced difficulties with family attitudes, including the team’s wiry roving midfielder Nedal Fadlalah, who joined in 2002.

Her family migrated to Khartoum from war-torn South Kordofan seeking a better life, like many of her teammates.

She played soccer with brothers and cousins growing up and rushed to join the team, despite opposition from relatives.

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