Against all odds: South Sudan’s daring drive on women’s football | Football

South Sudan gained independence in 2011 and its history is so short that it is a regular low-scoring answer on the popular quiz show Pointless. Much less trivially, for a majority of its existence the country has been in civil war, with peace and a new national unity government in place only from February of this year.

For a country clawing its way back from the devastating effects of a conflict that has seen hundreds of thousands killed and 1.5 million internally displaced, where nearly half of girls are married by 18, child marriages are increasing and sexual violence was used tactically during the war , it would be easy to assume that football, let alone women’s football, would be nonexistent.

Yet on Friday, just over a year after its women’s national team competed for the first time, the South Sudan Football Association launched a four-year strategy for women’s and girls’ football, Stars Unite, that aims to increase the number of participants by at least 70%.

South Sudan captain Amy Lasu

South Sudan’s captain, Amy Lasu. ‘Football has been considered a men’s sport,’ she says. Photograph: South Sudan FA

South Sudan, where women were at the heart of the peace drive and a 35% quota has been set for women’s participation in government, is not an outlier: the idea that women should not play football is as prevalent there as it is in many other parts of the world. The captain of the women’s national team, Amy Lasu, who began playing in Kenya before returning to play in her home country, says: “It is challenging because for the longest time football has been considered a men’s sport. It was considered a taboo for girls to play.”

Her mother played basketball and her father football, and they would buy her shirts and boots and take her to academies, but for Maryln James, a grassroots player, the story is a little different.

“If you tell your parents that you are going to play football you get asked why you’re going to play with men,” she says. “I just had one person supporting me, my mother. When I started my father would beat me when I came back from training. But my mother said this was not only for men, she can play.”

Far from bowing to the pressures and expectations on girls, the federation is challenging them. “We want to show to the world that South Sudan is growing in women football, and we also want change the mindset of some people who still don’t believe that women can play football,” says Helen Terso Aninyesi, the project manager for Stars Unite and women’s development officer.

South Sudan’s national team, who played their first game last year.

South Sudan’s national team, who played their first game last year. Photograph: South Sudan FA

The plans are bold. The FA has committed to training more female coaches, administrators, referees and scouts; girls’ football will be promoted in schools; there will be community outreach programmes; it will launch a new national league with player licensing; and it promises increased participation for the national team in competitions.

“This new women’s football strategy is a very big step towards showing the SSFA’s commitment towards promoting women’s football in South Sudan and giving an opportunity for everyone to be involved in football,” says the FA president, Francis Amin.

The players feel it will be game-changing. “I think it’s going to change society’s view on football,” says Lasu. “Most girls shy away from football because of societal views. This strategy will show people that girls can play and show girls that they can be involved and come out and play.

“It will especially help our sisters who have dropped out of football because of the challenges they have faced. Instead they will feel hope inside themselves when they see sisters playing and want to come back to play and train.”

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The country’s men’s team launched in 2012 and have climbed to 163 (out of 210) in the Fifa rankings. The women’s team have played three times since they began just over a year ago and are unranked. Their first fixture ended in a 9-0 defeat by Tanzania but the second two days later brought a historic win, with Lasu scoring the first and last goals in a 5-0 victory over Zanzibar.

“I hope and pray that one day the national team will reach a high level,” Lasu says. “We’re just starting but I believe with time, if we take the right path, we will get far, maybe even the World Cup one day.”

James adds: “I have a hope in my heart that women’s football in South Sudan is going to be something amazing.”

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