Battle for 2018 World Cup starts as South Sudan makes its bow

> Robson Sharuko

Harare – FROM a war-ravaged Somalia, a civil-war weary South Sudan to a Central African Republic nation that has been in turmoil for months, the beautiful game of football will, this weekend, provide a ray of hope for the people of these countries as the qualifying battle for the 2018 FIFA World Cup gets underway.

The people of Zimbabwe will feel the pain of their beloved Warriors’ expulsion from the qualifiers, when others start the marathon this weekend, paying the price for the sins of their football leaders who failed to pay a debt owed to former coach Valinhos of Brazil.

It’s the first time that Zimbabwe has missed the World Cup show, since the country attained Independence in 1980, and the Warriors’ absence from the battle for a place in Russia in three years’ time was one of the reasons ZIFA president, Cuthbert Dube, and his entire Board were booted out of office last weekend.

Zimbabwe’s new Sports Minister, Makhosini Hlongwane, insists that he will not throw in the towel, in his ambitious bid to get the expulsion of the Warriors reversed, and says he will take the case to FIFA and believes something will be worked out for the country to be brought back into the battles.

“The punishment is severe because it’s against the very principles of developing football that FIFA preaches and we are certain that, when we take our case to Zurich, we will get a satisfactory response,” said Hlongwane.

“The players and the fans should not be punished for a contract that was between our football leaders and their employee.”

Football’s power to cheer the spirits of nations, including those that have been wrecked by civil strife, is one of the reasons why the game remains such a powerful, and popular, sporting discipline around the world.

Of course, some places remain too dangerous for the game to be played and the Central African Republic will not be allowed to play their match against Madagascar in their backyard because of security concerns.

Both legs of the battle will now be played in Antananarivo.

“The 2018 FIFA World Cup first-leg qualifier match between the Central African Republic and Madagascar which was due to be played in Bangui will now take place on 10 October 2015 in Antananarivo where the return match will be played as well on 13 October 2015,” FIFA said in a statement.

“The decision was taken by the Bureau 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia following an assessment of the security situation in Bangui and in agreement with both member associations.”

That should brighten the chances of Madagascar, one of a host of Southern African nations who are involved in battles this weekend, to make it to the next round.

Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan, has had its fair share of internal strife, as war continues to rage in that country, but this weekend the East African nation will find something to cheer its sprits when it hosts Mauritania in its first World Cup game.

“There are times when sport seems very low on the list of a nation’s priorities, not least in the wake of natural disasters, humanitarian crises and armed conflicts, when the struggle just to survive takes precedence over all else,” the official FIFA website noted.

“Yet, even in times of desperate need, football can be a force for change and good, and give societies the opportunity to show the best of themselves.

“That is exactly what is happening in South Sudan, the youngest nation on the planet, which is readying itself for its FIFA World Cup qualifying debut and dreaming of moving on from its turbulent past.”

And Richard Justin Lado, who left Sudan for South Sudan where he was given the responsibility of becoming the first man to captain his national football team, spoke to about his journey and his sport.

“My family came from South Sudan, so it wasn’t a difficult choice for me,” the 35-year-old said. “I just followed my heart.

“We didn’t have much when we started out. There weren’t a lot of players around and we didn’t even have a coach. We were determined to build a new country, though, and make the fans happy, which is what kept us going. As time has gone by things have got better.

“All people spoke about before was war, but now they’re talking about football too. We’ve shown that we’re ready, that we can bring the country together behind a single objective, behind a dream.

“The national team is a great example of unity. The players come from every ethnic group, from all over the country, and we play in harmony. Now that the war is over, more players will come and we can be the best. We have to make the most of what is happening

“It has to be said that this isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan. The war didn’t affect the cities too much and people were able to live their lives without fear, although there were soldiers and conflict elsewhere.

“I’ve spoken a lot to all the players and through those conversations we’ve tried to make football a force for ending all the damage caused by war. It’s something I’m not tired of repeating.”

Somalia host Niger in the first leg of the qualifiers, Namibia are away to Gambia in what should be a tough duel, Comoros and Lesotho clash in a Southern African showdown, Djibouti host Swaziland, Eritrea have a home date against Botswana, Seychelles host Burundi, Mauritius are fancying their chances against Kenya and Tanzania have a date against Malawi.

Southern African big guns, Zambia and South Africa, will only join the battles in the second round next month.

South Africa have qualified for the World Cup three times (1998, 2002 and 2010, when they hosted the tournament) while Zambia are yet to make the trip to football’s biggest showcase.

October 2015
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