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Al Hilal: Sudanese champion continues playing to “distract people from war”

  • By Celestine Karoney
  • ` Sport Africa

3 minutes ago

image source, Al-Hilal Sports Club

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Al Hilal played all African Champions League group games at the Benjamin Mkapa Stadium in Tanzania this season

Nearly a year after Sudan's civil war erupted, the country's most successful soccer club, Al Hilal, says it is continuing to play to provide a “distraction” for people at home.

The domestic league has been paused but the Sudanese champions have found a way to continue their on-field activities by reaching an agreement with the Tanzania Football Federation (TFF) to play in the country's top flight from August.

“We are playing at this very sad moment to distract our people from war,” said Dr. Hassan Ali, Secretary General of Al Hilal, told ` Sport Africa.

“The majority of football fans in Sudan sometimes have nothing, even in normal times. What they have are Al Hilal victories that make them happy with their families.”

“It is a moral responsibility. It's not about winning points and trophies. No, we play for our fans to keep their morale high.”

A nearly century-old club that is an African Champions League regular made inquiries to several other associations across the continent and received positive feedback from Uganda and Libya before agreeing a deal with Tanzania.

“We gave preference to Tanzania because football there is very progressive and competitive and we want to be well prepared for the next competition at African level,” added Dr. Ali added.

Familiarity with Tanzania also played a role for Al Hilal, as the East African country was the club's base during this year's Champions League season, which ended in group stage elimination.

TFF spokesman Clifford Mario Ndimbo told the ` that all clubs in the league supported Al Hilal's inclusion, but their matches would be counted as friendlies.

“They (Al Hilal) will be on the fixture list but their results will not factor into the NBC Premier League results,” Ndimbo said.

“The aim is to help them when the country is in a disaster, but we also believe this move will bring positive results as the league will be followed from different locations. This will increase popularity and help increase revenue for clubs.”

Playing in Tanzania could also help Al Hilal avoid a mass exodus of players ahead of their participation in next season's continental competition.

The Omdurman-based club currently has around ten foreign players in its squad.

“I think it will help Al Hilal to hold on to their players and Florent Ibenge, a coach who is known across the continent and is a big part of what they are trying to do,” explained Abdul Musa, an analyst on Sudanese football ` Sport Africa.

“They need some kind of competition where they can compete on a continental level. If you don’t play in a league, it’s difficult.”

image source, Al-Hilal Sports Club

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Al Hilal's stadium, once one of the best in the country, is now in a dilapidated state after almost a year of civil war

“War always has negative effects,” says Dr. Ali too.

“We are in exile and the players played in a very difficult situation – a state of war – away from their families.”

“At the administrative level, we cannot meet physically. The board members are scattered in different parts of the world.”

“At the financial level, we have lost a lot of resources, including revenue from African competitions. But we are determined to carry on despite the war and hope that one day we will return to our stadium and to our fans.”

When professional football will return to Sudan remains uncertain as military groups are still fighting for control of the country.

But even if the war ends now, Al Hilal will not be able to use its state-of-the-art stadium, which was renovated in 2018.

The club says it will cost around $4 million to repair the damage to its home stadium in Omdurman, dubbed the Blue Jewel, which was looted.

“Before the war we imported new equipment for modern lighting. “All the equipment imported from Spain was stolen,” lamented Dr. Ali.

“The lawn needs to be renovated. Our offices and all those things were seriously damaged.”

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image source, Getty Images

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Al Hilal and Omdurman-based rivals Al Merreikh are in the running for the 2022 African Champions League

Sudan's oldest club Al Merreikh is also looking for a new home.

The club received positive feedback from Tanzania, Libya, Uganda, Kenya and Ghana, but ` Sport Africa understands they will settle for Tanzania like their rivals Al Hilal.

While the country's two biggest clubs have the means to extricate themselves from the conflict and continue playing, most football clubs in Sudan were forced to let players go after the league was closed.

“About 15 other clubs are completely bankrupt,” said Musa.

“They are unable to continue paying their wages. It was a very difficult situation without income, so a lot of players are now free.”

As a result, many players are looking for opportunities elsewhere.

One country that has seen an influx of Sudanese players is Libya – whose league resumed in 2021 after being paused during the six-year civil war.

“The Libyan Football Federation allowed each club to sign two Sudanese players and consider them as Libyan nationals in its system so that they do not take over the base of foreign players,” explains Musa, who has also worked as an agent for some Sudanese players.

“They don’t sign two- or three-year contracts, they don’t sign with high signing fees.

“Basically it's three or four months, and it's really just about salaries – something to make ends meet when they're in debt and to help their family in the next few months.”

Moving abroad is “the only solution”

John Mano is one of the players who moved to Libya on loan from Al Hilal and joined Al Sadaqa.

Although salaries in North Africa are lower than what Sudanese players earn in their homeland, the striker wants to stay focused on his career despite the psychological strain it brings when the safety of his family at home is not guaranteed is to stay active.

“Every player who is in Libya goes to training or to a game and at the end of the day they watch the news about Sudan,” Mano told ` Sport Africa.

“Players need psychological comfort to be able to be creative. There is some support, but we need to be here so our families can eat.”

“We don't earn the same as in Sudan, but this is the only solution. We have the opportunity to market ourselves and get back into football like we did in Sudan.”

For now, the people of Sudan are trying to survive the war.

When the guns finally fall silent, Musa believes domestic football's recovery will take time.

“The war has set us back a long way,” he said.

“A lot of players have left, so teams have to recruit new players again to keep up.”

“It will take a lot of work, but of course the most important thing is that the war stops.”

Additional reporting by Morad Dkeel.

image source, Dany Abi Khalil/`

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Sudanese army soldiers recaptured territory in Omdurman, where Al Hilal is based, but mortar shells continue to fall daily in the area

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