Monday, 18 June 2012, 08:43 GMT
VIVA World Cup helps broaden awareness about the plight of Darfur

Darfur team footballers celebrate scoring their goal against Western Sahara at the VIVA World Cup held in Erbil on June 7./GLOBE PHOTO/Hunter Payne

The Kurdish Globe
By Zakaria Muhammed--Erbil

US Soccer Stars send words of encouragement and support to Darfur team

The VIVA World Cup, one of the most important sporting events for nations unaffiliated with FIFA, ran for the first time in the Kurdistan Region two weeks ago where Kurdistan were crowned Champions.

If VIVA World Cup was an important feat for Kurdistan, then it may be a dream coming true for Darfur. Until a few months ago, Darfur didn't have a football team or perhaps even dreamed of one. After weeks of try-outs and training, Darfur United, a team comprised solely of Darfur refugees, played at the 2012 VIVA World Cup in Kurdistan.

Before arriving in Kurdistan, many of the young men of Darfur United had only played on the desert sand, with bare feet and makeshift balls. Moreover, lack of proper nourishment during their years in refugee camps have left them physically frail in comparison to other competitors. This was most evident on June 5, when they faced Northern Cyprus in their opening game. The Cyprus team, comprised mostly of league players, towered above the Darfur side and out-muscled them to secure a comprehensive 15-0 victory.

But it was the sportsmanship of Cyprus that allowed Darfur to emerge as the true victors, staying behind to congratulate each Darfur player on their determination, hearing about their struggles and exchanging jerseys. Provence, which scored an 18-0 victory over Darfur in the second match, similarly honored the Sudanese players with a guard of honor as they left the field with more jerseys exchanged.

US Soccer Stars sent their words of encouragement to the Darfur team. Landon Donovan, all-time leading scorer for the United States National Soccer Team, Angela Hucles, two-time US Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Cup champion, and former NBA player, Ira Newble, who was the instigator of the extensive NBA player outreach to Darfur a few years ago, recently sent video messages to the all-refugee soccer team at the VIVA World Cup in Erbil after the team's heavy losses in their first two matches.

After watching the videos from Donovan, Hucles and Newble, Darfur United took on Western Sahara with new bite and scored its first goal of the tournament. Darfur held onto to a 1-1 score line until the 83rd minute when Sahara suddenly pierced through with three quick goals. The jubilation from the Darfur team was, nevertheless, unstoppable, with players and coaches dancing on the bus after the match.

"The Darfur United players have had nothing positive to celebrate and have been losing hope of any future beyond the confines of the refugee camp," said Gabriel Stauring, Director of iACT, which is partnering with Aid Still Required to bring the team to Iraq. "This team means so much more to them than just a game of football. It gives all refugees something to celebrate, and it gives them a connection to the outside world."

Souleyman Adam Bourma, a refugee from camp Goz Amer who tried out for Darfur United, expressed his pride "I am very excited. I cannot express my feelings. We heard about this team six months ago, and today it is truth."

Sponsors and donors to Darfur United include Adidas, UNHCR, David Beckman, Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS Works (Major League Soccer Foundation), EVO Soccer Programs, South Bay Sports, and many other individuals. "Everyone who hears this story is moved by it," said Hunter Payne, co-founder of Aid Still Required.

Sixty-one players from all twelve refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border participated in try-outs for sixteen spots on the team roster. "Every single one of our players has the story of having their village attacked, of seeing family and friends being killed, mothers, sisters being raped in front of them, and then having to walk across the desert to survive and make it to one of these camps," explained Stauring. "They just make balls out of anything - some socks or some rubber that they put together - and they play."

Darfur United Coach Mark Hodson is both optimistic and realistic. "The level of talent is impressive, especially considering the facilities and resources available to the players. Everyone came ready to play, and they didn't need asking twice to produce their best level of effort.

"This group of players has suffered incredible sadness and hardship. There is no sign that their situation is going to improve any time soon. But they still carry a tremendous pride and sense of responsibility and a hope, that what they are doing will create a new path and joy for the people of Darfur, and it is an honor to be involved!" remarked Hodson.

Most of the Darfur players were in their late teens or early twenties, making them approximately ten years old when they escaped the violence in Darfur. They have spent all of their adult lives as refugees in the desert camps of Chad. All of them have stories of harrowing experiences escaping the attacks that led them to refugee life.