This story also appears at InBedWithMaradona.com
The Darfur region is better known for poverty and the murderous Janjeweed militia, who terrorised and drove out many of the indigenous population in in western Sudan in a conflict that began over grazing rights.
What Darfur is not known for is football but that could be about to change. On Monday, a team of Darfur refugees will make the ‘international’ debut in the bi-annual Viva World Cup, which is being staged this year in Kurdistan.
With no games played, how Darfur fares in its first fixture against the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is hard to gauge. Particularly as the TRNC has an established and competitive league whereas the side that American manager Mark Hodson has whittled down from a shortlist of over 60 taken from refugee camps has yet to play a game.
That Darfur United – as the team are known – is even here is an amazing story as the idea for team came from the West Coast of America and i-ACT, a non-profit based in the Los Angeles area.
“We have been traveling to the refugee camps in Eastern Chad since 2005, each time connecting with the refugees through various projects, including soccer,” explains organiser Katie-Jay Scott
“Soccer is one of the few outlets that the Darfuri children and young adults have. Since 2010 we've been bringing sports equipment donated by soccer and volleyball clubs in America to the schools in the refugee camps. Last year we had the opportunity to ask Christian Michelis from the [VWC organisers the] N.F. Board if they would accept a team from Darfur. And, he said yes. That is where Darfur United and its journey began.
“Now we have several soccer clubs, organizations, schools, and individuals involved. Aid Still Required (ASR), also based in the Los Angeles area, has come on board as a partner to help make the trip to VWC, and the long term programs, a reality.”
Although the Kurdish organisers are covering accommodation for 25 members of each of the eight visiting teams to Kurdistan, teams that enter have had to cover their airfare. This has deterred some potential entrants, notably Greenland.
As the Darfur United party prepared to leave Chad, Katie-Jay Scott admits: “We continue our outreach on this front. It's been an amazing feat to raise what has been needed and we still have a little ways to go.”
She continues: “i-ACT and ASR have been fundraising since November 2011 to make this project a reality. It's required 3 trips to the refugee camps: introduction of the idea and establishing a project plan, tryouts, and now finally to pick up the team and take them to Iraqi Kurdistan. We've collected quite a few donations, including our uniforms and cleats [boots] which were all donated by Tracy McGrady, an NBA player. Xara Soccer has also been incredible in providing balls, cones, goalie gear, and training uniforms for the team.
“The project has been fully funded by generations individuals, schools/school clubs, local LA-area businesses, and soccer teams. We've sold Darfur United gear and hosted a large fundraiser here in Manhattan Beach.”
What happens next for Darfur United is the main issue. The TRNC are favourites to qualify form a group that includes a team drawn from the French region of Provence that is coached by former Valenciennes defender Philippe Burgio. Even if Darfur United do not qualify, the team will go on.
Katie-Jay Scott says: “Darfur United will surely continue after VWC. We plan to create an academy-like program that trains these initial players to return home and teach soccer to the kids and young adults in their own camp. There are 12 camps in Eastern Chad and all camps are represented in those attending the VWC plus a few others who were on the roster but unable to travel.
“These young men will continue to be trained by coaches who travel to the refugee camps and in turn share their soccer knowledge with their peers. We also hope to begin a soccer program for young girls, which wil be the first of its kind in the camps. All of this will likely start with a pilot program in Fall 2012 or Spring 2013.
“We also want the team Darfur United, also known as Darfur F.A., to continue to be able to play together and against other teams. Most likely, the next match would be in Chad, against Chad itself, or perhaps against an organized UN Refugee Agency team; not sure of the details or timing of this but we will work to keep the team playing together.
“Darfur United is really more than just a team. It will not only be turned into a documentary about the team and their individual stories from Darfur to the refugee camps, but it will serve to continue to unite the Darfuris in a time when they are physically and spiritually disconnected because of violence.”
Donate to the Darfur United campaign here.