But they did it, taking to the field in the autonomous Kurdistan region in north Iraq in green jerseys emblazoned with “Darfur United” and “The UN Refugee Agency”. It was not only their first tournament, but their first time playing football on a grass field.
As a new team playing more seasoned opponents in the 2012 VIVA World Cup, a tournament for teams not affiliated with football’s governing body FIFA, the 16-member Darfur squad had an uphill struggle that included two double-digit defeats.
They scored a goal in their third match, but the main point for Darfur United was playing.
“We (lost) a lot of games, but... we are not going to worry about that,” said team captain Suleiman Adam Bourma, who plays forward. “We came just only to represent Darfur.”
“I’m very proud,” Bourma said with a big smile, adding he felt “that I make history for the Darfurian nation.”
The journey that took the team to Kurdistan began in the refugee camps of the central African nation of Chad, which the United Nations estimates hosts about 270,000 refugees from neighbouring Sudan, the vast majority of them from Darfur.
According to the UN, at least 300,000 people have died since 2003 in the conflict in Darfur, which has seen arrest warrants issued for Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and other top officials on charges of war crimes and genocide.
It was Gabriel Stauring, director of i-ACT, a California-based advocacy group working for people affected by genocide, who came up with the idea for the team. He got Mark Hodson, a professional British football coach also living in California, to sign on as Darfur United’s manager. Just 10 weeks before the tournament, the two men travelled to Chad — which Stauring has visited numerous times since 2005 — and held about 10 days of tryouts for players from 12 different camps.
The men selected for the team stayed together for the next eight weeks, Hodson said.
“We’ve been training, we’ve prepared them, we gave them things to work on, materials to work with, balls and cones,” he said.
There were “an incredible amount of difficulties,” said Hodson. “We’re still pinching ourselves to feel that we’re here.”
Financing was one issue, with money for the Kurdistan trip raised “from families, people we knew, kids in schools.”
Then there were “difficulties in getting a refugee out of a country when they don’t have a passport,” and a long plane journey from Chad to Ethiopia, Turkey and finally Kurdistan, all for players who had never flown internationally before.
“I can’t believe it, because I see them in the sky, but at last I was inside the plane,” said Bourma. “They have lunch, TV, they have everything.”
Once in Kurdistan, the novelties continued. Not only was it the team’s first tournament but their first time playing on grass, said Bourma, and the nice hotel they were put up in was a world away from the refugee camps.
“Life is so difficult,” said Bourma, citing trouble in the camps with water supplies and access to education. “Life there is too bad.”
“I told the people... I visit Kurdistan, they cannot believe it,” he added, “because they will see this (as) impossible for me to come here.”
The player said he noticed a difference between the physiques of Darfur players and those from other teams, and attributed this to problems with food in the camps.
“Their food rations are not enough. Their housing is not sufficient. The education system is not appropriate,” said Stauring of the camps in Chad.
There is “also just the loss of hope — them not seeing a future beyond the confines of the camp is something that can be crushing.”
“With Darfur United, we saw the opportunity to create awareness using a sport that is loved worldwide,” and “to give the refugees something positive in their lives and something they can be proud of and call their own,” Stauring said.
“It is a lot more than football.”
Hodson said: “Our hope is that when they go back to the camps and tell the story, they will create teams from within the camps and they can play together in the future and keep building the programme.”
Darfur United players said they planned to do just that.
“I would like to make a team” for “little children, to be a coach,” said Abdelbassit Omer, who plays central midfield and right back.
“Everybody must be a coach when he reaches there,” said Bourma. “We will select (an) age to teach (children) how can we develop our football in (the) camps.”