South Sudan’s fairytale basketball story is an inspiration to many

When the first round of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Africa qualifiers came to a close on July 3, with games played in Egypt, Cote D’Ivoire, and Rwanda, 12 teams had secured spots in the second round of qualifiers commencing at the end of August in a 2 group format, with Cote D’Ivoire, Angola, Guinea, Cape Verde, Nigeria, and Uganda in one and South Sudan, Tunisia, Cameroon, Egypt, DR Congo, and Senegal in the other.

This sets up some tough matches in the next round but there are already some significant stories here.

South Sudan wows at the FIBA World Cup qualifiers

Africa’s “Cinderella story”, is South Sudan, the side that became the talk of the basketball town after finishing the first round of qualifiers undefeated (6-0) and beating Africa Champions Tunisia for the second time in this window – despite the presence of Tunisian superstars, Michael Roll, and Salah Mejri.

It’s a team that has grown exponentially in the past three years after not even featuring in the top 20 teams on the continent in the previous tournament. The country federation’s recently appointed deputy secretary general, Arou Chan, expressed the country’s pride in the achievement and threw down the gauntlet.

“The team performed in a heroic way… Our aim as a group is to make it all the way to the World Cup. And we believe with determination, hard work, organization, discipline, and consistency we will make it.”

Chan credits South Sudan Basketball Federation (SSBF) president Luol Deng with creating a fail-safe structure for basketball development in the country.

“Our growth is hugely credited to our federation president Mr. Luol Deng, who had a vision of getting us to the World Cup. He put together a team of excellent professional coaching staff, as well as surrounded himself with individuals that had a common goal. They scouted young players around the globe that were talented, have South Sudan at heart, and were eager to represent the nation. That, plus high-level organization propelled the South Sudan men’s basketball team to the current unbeaten run in the qualifiers. Hopefully, we can continue the run till we achieve our goal as a nation.”

Challenges at different African sporting federations

Central African Republic, Kenya, Mali, and Rwanda were eliminated in the first round but not all of those eliminations came due to losses. Kenya missed their first game due to travel delays contributing to the uphill battle they were bound to face in their tough group and the Mali camp chose to forfeit games after posting a video highlighting grievances over their federation’s poor travel conditions, unfulfilled promises, and a lack of allowances.

It’s a narrative familiar within many basketball federations and Malian fans were split as to whether players should have played or boycotted. One local coach who chooses to remain anonymous expressed his displeasure at the manner in which the complaints were made, stating:

“I believe the method of protest was not good. They could have expressed themselves without affecting the honor of Mali by just playing first…if they didn’t want to play they should have allowed others to travel and represent the country.”

Former Mali national team captain and legendary player, Mohamed Tangara, shared a different sentiment, applauding the bravery of the players.

“The issues come from the Malian government owing players money and making promises without fulfilling them. The problem comes from miscommunication and a lack of trust in Mali’s basketball federation. The trust has to be repaired; the young people just want to be heard. They feel like they’re being left out and not getting any of the attention that they deserve about their problems.” he said.

Seven players in Mali’s national team have since been banned from playing for the national team again.

However, it’s not all gloom and doom for Mali as they have a contingent in the FIBA U-17 World Cup being played in Spain from July 2-10. Mali and Egypt are the only two African teams representing the continent.

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