There are plenty of contenders for the crown of the hardest job in football, but things don’t get much tougher than being the coach of Sudan.
By James Montague
Wracked by civil war and with a government accused of complicity in genocide, Sudan has been split between its Arab Muslim north and its black Christian south for decades.
To the west, Darfour has seen the internal displacement of some one million people according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with anywhere up to 300,000 deaths since 2003. To the east, a nascent insurgency has tried to disrupt Sudan’s abundant oil supplies. And in March the president, Omar al-Bashir, was issued with an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
This isn’t exactly the best environment to try to secure the country’s first appearance at a World Cup finals. But somehow the Desert Hawks have found themselves just six games away from qualifying for South Africa 2010. And the man charged with getting them there is an Englishman, Stephen Constantine. Constantine is used to coaching in tough environments – Nepal, India and Malawi, not to mention England’s Millwall, where he was first-team coach in 2005 before being sacked following relegation.
But after being turned down for a job at English non-league side Woking last summer he was unexpectedly offered a route back into international football. And it’s his hardest assignment yet.
“There are some problems here,” says Constantine. “Just before I got here the British embassy said: ‘Are you sure you want to come?’ A few days after I arrived Al-Bashir was indicted. But football brings people together. I can’t do anything about the political situation, but I can do something about the footballing situation.”
Constantine has grown accustomed to finding himself in places where bad things happen.
He coached Nepal’s national side during the Maoist insurgency and used to play football with Crown Prince Dipendra. In 2001, a month after Constantine left, Dipendra massacred the entire Royal Family. A subsequent job with India required armed policemen brandishing machine guns to accompany him when he visited training camps in Assam, where a violent separatist struggle still rages.
Sudan, though, presents some very different challenges and the importance of the national team cannot be understated.
Like the Iraq national team, who managed to unite a fractured country when they lifted the 2007 Asian Cup, Sudan has an equally divisive domestic situation with few institutions strong enough to provide any meaningful symbols of unity.
The Desert Hawks, though, buck the trend. “If the national team is doing well they are happier about their everyday lives. There are eight daily newspapers on football here, after all,” Constantine says. “The national team is a symbol of reconciliation [because] it’s representative. You have boys from Juba and Nimule [in the South] and Port Sudan [in the East]. The first squad I picked I didn’t care where they were from: north or south, east or west. If they’re Sudanese, I’ll pick ’em.”
Aside from some tactical and nutritional problems that Constantine spotted on his arrival, one of the big problems is the concentrated nature of the Sudanese league. Almost all the national team play for Al Hilal and Al Merreikh, from the town of Omdurman, next to the capital, Khartoum. “My job is to go out of Khartoum to find other players,” says Constantine. “I will go to Port Sudan, I will go anywhere.”
Constantine has been as good as his word and despite finding himself in a nation rated second on the 2008 Failed States Index – below Somalia, one above Zimbabwe – he has toured the country looking for players outside of the big two clubs, an act that has put him at risk of kidnapping or worse.
“When I said I was going to a game south of Khartoum they [the FA] said: ‘Are you sure you want to go?’” he says. “It’s a couple of hours down the road and the people there were amazed I made it. I don’t know if I’m in any danger. I didn’t think about it. Maybe I should.
“The recent kidnappings [of three western aid workers] haven’t helped. I can’t just stay in Khartoum though.
I haven’t got any security guards, not just yet. I haven’t got a bulletproof vest or anything.”
The search has taken him abroad, too, with Constantine looking at the Sudanese diaspora for help in bolstering his team, currently ranked 88th in the world. He hopes that 18-year-old Osama Malik, an Australian midfielder with Sudanese parentage who has just broken into the Adelaide United side, can be persuaded to join the campaign.
It will be a big ask to finish top of a qualifying group that includes Ghana, Mali – with whom they drew 1-1 in their opening game – and Benin, but Constantine believes Sudan have a chance and says: “It’s every manager’s dream to go to the World Cup. This is my fourth national side but this would bring happiness to everyone. They need it more than anyone.”
Qualification would bring a whole new set of problems. When Iran reached the finals in 2006, the team was dogged by political controversy as politicians and campaign groups lobbied to have Team Melli thrown out in response to president Ahmadinejad’s flagrant anti-Semitism. There were protests wherever the team played in Germany and those voices of dissent would be even louder if Sudan reached the finals.
“I know what it would mean for me and the people of Sudan,” says Constantine. “So, please God, I hope we have that problem to deal with because it will mean that we are at
the World Cup finals.”
If that happens Constantine will be the only Englishman leading a team out to South Africa next year. Others who have made their names with unfancied African teams at the
World Cup – such as Bruno Metsu (Senegal), Henri Michel (Ivory Coast) and Winfried Schafer (Cameroon) – were rewarded with lucrative contracts elsewhere.
Constantine, on the other hand, has more modest desires for where he wants to go next. “Back to Millwall,” he replies quickly. “It was a fantastic experience and the fans were great. I don’t care what people say. No one likes us, we don’t care!”
If Sudan were to qualify, against all the odds, for the 2010 World Cup, Constantine will have to grow equally as thick a skin in South Africa as he did in South London. l