Football in South Sudan: The Upper Nile Academy

For the last five years, South Sudan has been
ravaged by a brutal civil war. It has left thousands dead and millions displaced, many
of whom have fled to neighbouring Sudan, Kenya and Uganda.
For those who remain, there is constant fear of conflict, of being caught up in the fighting
between the many opposing factions. The war began in 2013, two years after South
Sudan became the world’s newest independent nation after breaking away from Sudan. Disputes
with Sudan over oil escalated and led to clashes between the government and rebel groups.
Five years of fighting has taken its toll: as of late July, according to CNN, the youth
unemployment rate in South Sudan was at 38.6%. In a country with a median age of 18.1 years,
it means poverty, crime and delinquency. For young people, life is hard: there are
very few job prospects and many children have been separated from their families, left to
fend for themselves. That is where the Upper Nile football academy
comes in, set up in 2016 to provide a place for displaced youths, and to offer some hope,
some direction for those in a seemingly hopeless situation.
Based in the small, dusty town of Rubkona, in the north of South Sudan, the academy gives
children from the ages of four to 18 a chance to play football. They are split into age
groups, and take part in regular training sessions, matches and tournaments. But, most
importantly, the academy, which is part of a United Nations Protection of Civilians site,
gives them somewhere to belong. “Sport is the only tool left to unite people
in South Sudan,” Lat Tungwar Kueiguong, the co-founder of the Upper Nile academy,
told Tifo. “It is the only way to get back to normal and bring everlasting peace in the
country. “Sport, if well-organised, is a proven remedy
for delinquency and waywardness. On the other hand, failing to harness this energy for the
good of society can lead to it being used in anti-social behavior like crime and alcohol
abuse.” The aim, for Kueiguong and his colleagues,
is to “create a conducive environment for young children to grow and leave a mark in
the world. Without the Upper Nile academy, many of the
youngsters involved would be out on the streets, homeless and addicted to drugs. Instead, football
has given them a purpose, and the hope now is that more and more children are inspired
to join. “I’m glad these boys are becoming role models
to others their age,” said Kueiguong. “They are going to influence other good talent to
join them in the Academy which makes a huge impact, and it’s what motivates me most.”
Amongst the most talented players at the academy is 14-year-old Tot Meh Doh, nicknamed Antoine
Griezmann by his peers. The teenager, like thousands of others his age in South Sudan,
was aimless before he arrived at a training session one evening and impressed the Upper
Nile coaches with his freestyling. “Within one month of training with the rest
of the team he was ranked as the best player at the academy,” said Kueiguong. “I’m
sure this guy will make it to the professional level. But the academy needs some help.”
For all of the good work done at Upper Nile, resources remain scarce. A lack of funding
and basic equipment makes even putting on training sessions difficult. And there has
been little progress made in achieving piece over the last few months.
But the academy will continue to make a difference, to spread hope in a country torn apart by
war. “These young kids are in the middle of displacement
and torn families, but they breathe togetherness,” reads the latest post on Upper Nile’s Facebook
page. “To all the coaches coordinating the games, we appreciate you all! Keep your head
up high young men. Everything will be okay one day.”

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