South Sudan: football and Olympic teams coming soon

Now that South Sudan has gained independence from the north and become the world’s newest sovereign state, it is likely that sport will provide one of the earliest and most visible expressions of national identity.

Along with setting up a capital city, a currency, an internet domain and taking up a seat at the United Nations, the creation of new sports teams will be high on the agenda for the new government of South Sudan. According to the BBC, basketball and football squads are already in training for their first international matches, even if the facilities are somewhat basic.

International sports federations and the International Olympic Committee have clearly defined procedures for welcoming new member countries because it happens on a regular basis. In some cases they are established countries which now wish to formalise their participation in a particular sport but there has also been a steady stream of new sovereign states over the last twenty years, including the countries which were formerly part of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

In some cases new countries can make rapid progress in sport. Montenegro has had a remarkable rise from 199th and last place in the FIFA rankings when they played their first match in 2007 to 16th place today.

For newly independent countries international sport takes on a particular significance: supporting their national teams brings the people together, giving them the chance to wave flags, sing the national anthem and identify with heroes.

The birth of a new country often follows a period of instability and sometimes violence – a brutal and long-running civil war in the case of Sudan. After so much suffering, the appearance of new sports teams seems a positive sign of progress towards stability, as well as confirmation of nationhood.

On the other side of the new border, the split may provoke strong emotions and the relationship between the two countries is likely to be difficult in the early years. Sport in these circumstances can provide an outlet for patriotic fervour. It is no surprise that matches between neighbouring countries are often the hardest fought on the pitch, sometimes involving tension between rival fans.

Faced with daunting challenges, as the New York Times points out, South Sudan is perhaps unlikely to match Montenegro’s record. Nevertheless, now is a time for optimism and sport has an important role to play.

The cheers will be loud and heart-felt when the South Sudan football team plays its first competitive match, and when the Olympic team enters the stadium at the London 2012 Opening Ceremony.

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