The Strange Story of How Darfur Got Its Own Soccer Team
Hugh BiggarDarfur United team photo
On an artificial soccer field the first week of June, not far from the Arctic Circle, 15 young Darfuris stand, shoulder to shoulder. The team, known as Darfur United, is about to face the Padania squad from northern Italy. The players place their hands over their green jerseys and tentatively, then more confidently, sing their national anthem.
This song, which took the players two years to decide on thanks to the rival factions in their homeland, is just one small way this group of Africans and a small organization located above a Hermosa Beach coffee shop have combined forces to ensure the Darfuri people are not relegated to the global sidelines.
"Nobody cares about us," Ismail Ibrahim, a midfielder, says after the first game. "We are here to show them about Darfur. And to score some goals."
Known as the ConIFA World Football Cup 2014, the tournament in Östersund, Sweden, hosts soccer teams representing areas and peoples not affiliated with FIFA, which runs this month's "other" World Cup in Brazil. Hosted by Scandinavia's Sami people (also known as Laplanders), the tournament's participants include territories that hope to be independent, such as Padania; places with limited international recognition, such as Abkhazia; historical regions, such as County of Nice in France; and stateless people such as the Assyrians, who are originally from Mesopotamia.
Eleven of the 12 teams here have at least some professional and high-level college-level players. Darfur United is the one exception.
The Hermosa Beach connection comes via Gabriel Stauring, a resident of Torrance, who helped start the team in 2005. A CSU Dominguez Hills graduate, Stauring was working as an in-home counselor for abused children in the South Bay when he heard an NPR story about the 10th anniversary of genocide in Rwanda. He became determined to make a difference.
At the time, a long-simmering conflict in western Sudan's Darfur region had exploded into war. Backed by the Sudanese government, Arab militiamen known as janjaweed escalated the killing and kidnapping of black Africans, starting a genocide that would eventually kill an estimated 300,000 and displace 4 million. Thousands of black Darfuris fled west across the desert to United Nations camps in Chad.
Though he'd never previously traveled further than Mexico, Stauring secured a visa from the Chad embassy and flew to the refugee camps.
"I wanted to put a face on the numbers," he says.
After his first trip, Stauring started advocating for Darfur, documenting conditions in the camps through webcasts and blogs before founding the Hermosa Beach organization i-Act.
Now with a full-time staff of five, including his wife, Katie-Jay Scott, and about 15 volunteers, i-Act runs advocacy, nutrition, education and trauma-recovery programs for Darfuris, about 360,000 of whom are still living in the camps. The group is funded through donors, grants and an annual Los Angeles - area fundraising event called One Strong Kick.
As that name suggests, soccer became an important part of Stauring's work with the refugees. Although he did not have a soccer background, on his first trip he brought soccer balls, hoping to provide a welcome diversion for those living in camps that he describes as "an open-air prison," where children made their own balls out of strings and rags.
Eventually, through i-Act, Stauring recruited coaches, including Mark Hodson - a director of coaching at Evolution Soccer and the Sand and Surf Soccer Club in Manhattan Beach - to run clinics in the camps. From there, the idea of a national Darfuri team was born.
For their first international tournament, held in Kurdistan in 2012, Hodson assembled a team drawn from the best players in the refugee camps.
"Their technical skills were not quite zero, but not far above it," Stauring says. "They were playing on dirt and using rocks as goal posts."
In addition, players initially didn't get along because of tribal and linguistic differences. They argued over the official anthem for two years before finally settling on a Sudanese song familiar to all of them, sung in their shared language of Arabic. Different tribes refused to eat together, or sleep in the same room. "I had to put my foot down and say, 'This has to stop,' " says Hodson, now the team's head coach.
Darfur United's participation at the tournament in Kurdistan continues to pay dividends, including the development of soccer academies in the camps and plans for a women's team. One tribal elder proudly told Stauring, "Now I feel we are a part of the world."
This month, the team members arrive in Sweden via a flight from Chad followed by an eight-hour bus ride. They're in the country for less than 48 hours before their first game, against Padania.
They lose badly. Darfur United's goalie struggles to catch the ball, swatting at it like a pesky insect, and Padania wins 20-0. In the next match, against South Ossetia, they lose 19-0. In its third game, against Nagorno Karabakh (which borders Armenia and Iran), Darfur United makes strides but still loses 12-0.
Even so, the team and its staff remain upbeat. Back in Chad, camp residents lack electricity, face reduced UN food deliveries and don't have Internet access - but they follow Darfur United on mobile phones. In Sweden, midfielder Mahamat "Iggy" Ignegui says, "We can come here and meet people, tell them about the problems, go on social media and the Internet. We can be a voice [for] Darfur."
In their June 7 game, against the Tamil Eelam team from north Sri Lanka, players face yet another challenge. Five of their teammates disappeared the night before, presumably to seek asylum. They had left personal items in their rooms, and so a few Darfuri players waited until 2 a.m. in the hotel lobby, hoping their friends would reappear - but they're gone.
Still, Darfur United rallies with a squad of 10, which includes one player with an ACL injury and the team translator, 47-year-old Oumda Alfateh Haroun, who had attended practices but mostly as a spectator. With most Darfuri players well under 25, Haroun still makes it through the 90-minute match.
As a change of pace and a show of equality, volunteer coaches Margo Baker and Rachael Rapinoe step in for Hodson. It's believed to be the first time women have coached a men's national squad.
Hugh BiggarIbrahim holds a sign, from the stands during the final game
Darfur United stays close in the first half against the Tamil team. Its tall goalkeeper, Abdelhamid Djouma, confidently catches the ball this time, and the team limits Tamil to just four goals in the first half. Ibrahim and Ignegui launch several attacks on the goal, narrowly missing several times.
In the last 20 minutes, though, Tamil Eelam scores six goals for a 10-0 win, which means a last-place tournament finish for Darfur United.
At the tournament final, Ibrahim watches in the stands in jeans and T-shirt as County of Nice defeats Isle of Man in extra time. In the first half, he diligently works on a handmade sign to hold up throughout the game. Despite ConIFA's apolitical agenda, Ibrahim has action on his mind. Written in black and white, it's a message to the International Criminal Court: "Darfur Wait 4 You."
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