It was never supposed to be!
South Sudan at a World Cup?
There is no way!
We are talking about a nation that has gone through over 68 years of continued warfare!
A nation with over two million people dead from war, with even more displaced people including more than two million refugees!
We are talking about a poor nation with starvation and drought, a nation divided, and a nation lacking financial resources!
And, to make matters more unlikely, we are talking about a new nation barely over a decade old!
So, how can it be possible that South Sudan qualifies for the Basketball World Cup against the likes of much bigger nations like Egypt, Senegal, DR Congo, Tunisia, and Cameroon?
Well, if you are asking that question, you must not be familiar with the role basketball plays in South Sudan!
As you can tell from the intro, South Sudan is a country ravaged by warfare.
Both Sudans sit in a region of the world that is very ancient. It was home to what many people have called Nubia and Kush over the years and it became known for pyramids like Egypt!
Both Sudans became Christian nations in the 500s, and held onto their Christian Oriental Orthodox religion while nations like Egypt became conquered by the Muslims and Arabs.
In the 1500s though, both Sudans went through sudden transformation.
Northern Sudan saw an Arab and Muslim conquer that changed the Sudanese people for the rest of time, thus far. And northern Sudan also became a majority Islamic nation. While northern Sudanese were always much lighter in their skin tones, resembling most Egyptians, the Arab admixture added an extra layer of lighter skin.
Southern Sudan, meanwhile, saw an influx of Sub-Saharan Africans (Blacks) of mostly the Nilotic ethnic group during the 1500s. While southern Sudan had always featured dark skinned people, this migration further solidified the already existant phenotypic divide between both Sudans. These new Sudanese had their own indigenous beliefs they brought with them, making this region mostly of these faiths.
Therefore, Sudan would be no longer Chrisitan, and the divide between the people became wider.
However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Sudan became conquered by Egypt and the United Kingdom alike.
The Egyptians made sure the north stayed Arab and Muslim, spreading Arabic even more. The British, meanwhile, re-introduced the south to Christianity by bringing in Western Christian missionaries. The British also promoted the English language and soon, southern Sudan became home to mostly Catholic and Anglican Black English speakers while the north became almost universally Muslim Arabs speaking Arabic.
Thus, when Sudan became independent in 1956, there already was a Civil War between the two going on. The north promised to give the south autonomy and power-sharing in order to incorporate both Sudans into one, but the north reneged on this agreement extending the First Civil War to 1972. The Second Civil War started in 1983 and continued to 2005. But, during, in between, and after these wars, wars between the north and the south, as well as war with terrorist and rebel groups pursued, on top of the ethnic violence present especially in the south.
Luckily, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed onto in 2005 that gave the south autonomy and the right to hold a referendum. When South Sudan did in 2011, the South Sudanese people voted 98% to become independent, making South Sudan the newest UN-member state.
Despite this accomplishment, war with the north, with others like Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, war with a rebel group, and ethnic violence has continued to plague the nation.
During this era of warfare, South Sudanese people began to dominate basketball overseas.
The Nilotic peoples that make up a majority of South Sudan are among the tallest people on average in the world.
Notable basketball stars became known throughout the world like the NBA’s tallest player ever, Manute Bol (played in the NBA from 1985-1995).
Other players also came to dominate the NBA like Luol Deng (played in the NBA from 2004-2019) who was a 2x NBA All-star.
And plenty of South Sudanese people dominated in elite leagues outside of the NBA.
Yet, despite having potentially one of the most talented national teams, South Sudan did not exist as a national team until recently and thus, these players either played for no nation or chose another such as one they moved to.
For example, Luol Deng became Great Britain’s best basketball player.
While Luol Deng is retired now, other South Sudanese basketball players play for other nations to this day such as Thon Maker, Deng Adel, and Mangok Mathiang, who have all played in the NBA and currently represent Australia.
Therefore, it became evident to many that South Sudan could succeed in basketball one day, but only if they put together a national team.
South Sudan National Team begins play:
Right away, South Sudan created a team and played the Ugandan League Champions in 2011, losing only by two points, 84-86.
This loss was considered good because while South Sudan were expected to become very good one day by its people, no one expected it to be soon because the generations old enough to play at the professional level were already playing for other national teams as mentioned before. Furthermore, South Sudan was not yet a FIBA member nation and thus they had to wait to become members before they could enter into international competition. This lack of recognition kept these early South Sudan National Teams not able to compete at their highest levels as it was very difficult to recruit the diaspora when there was no chance to play in any major competitions.
In 2012, South Sudan joined FIFA (soccer), and finally, in 2013, South Sudan became a FIBA member.
Now South Sudan was elgible for international competitions.
Unfortantely though, South Sudan had to miss the 2014 Basketball World Cup in Spain as qualifiers had already started before they were even allowed to compete in FIBA competitions.
Therefore, their first crack at basketball glory would be for the 2019 Basketball World Cup in PR China.
South Sudan begins FIBA play:
The road to Beijing started in 2017 in Cairo, Egypt where South Sudan, Rwanda, Egypt, and Kenya battled to qualify for the last 16 of both AfroBasket (Africa’s championship) and World Cup Qualifying for Africa.
South Sudan would lose their first game to Egypt, and then defeated Kenya 68-66. This set up must win game with Rwanda, but South Sudan fell short!
South Sudan would have to wait for the 2023 World Cup.
With this came many changes, and Luol Deng became the South Sudan Basketball Federation President in 2019.
South Sudan’s 2023 run (thus far):
In 2020, South Sudan began their quest to qualify for their first World Cup and first AfroBasket, for the second time.
South Sudan entered a group featuring Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Eritrea, and Burundi, defeating all the nations by quite a lot, except Kenya, their sole loss. This 4-1 record kept South Sudan from advancing, but South Sudan got another chance in an extra pre-qualifier.
In the next round, South Sudan played in a group with Cape Verde and Chad, but once again, South Sudan finished in second with one loss, this time to Cape Verde, as South Sudan defeated Chad by quite a lot.
South Sudan was supposed to be eliminated, but then something happened with Algeria as they were unable to play in the next round.
South Sudan was next in-line and thus their World Cup and AfroBasket hopes continued.
In November of 2020 and February of 2021, South Sudan battled with Nigeria, Mali, and Rwanda. South Sudan finished 3-3 in this group with 2 losses to Nigeria and a loss to Rwanda, but also a win over Rwanda and 2 wins over Mali, finishing second in the group.
South Sudan was now qualified for their first major tournament, AfroBasket 2021. And, with this achievement, Luol Deng and the South Sudan Basketball Federation recruited Royal Ivey, a long-time NBA player and current Brooklyn Nets assistant coach as their head coach. Things were looking up for a revamped South Sudan.
South Sudan was drawn into a group with Cameroon, Uganda, and Senegal. South Sudan won their first game as Cameroon had to forfeit due to health issues. In the next game, Senegal dominated South Sudan, setting up a game with Uganda where the South Sudanese were not favored. Remember, it was only a decade ago that South Sudan failed to beat Uganda’s best club team, let alone the Uganda National Team. However, South Sudan did win, winning 88-86! The Round of 16 saw South Sudan defeat Kenya 60-58, and then South Sudan fell to eventual champions, Tunisia, 65-80 in the Quarter-finals.
Now South Sudan had more confidence for the World Cup Qualifiers.
In the First Round, South Sudan finished first in their group with a 6-0 record in front of Tunisia, Rwanda, and Cameroon.
In the Second Round, South Sudan started off with a 66-69 loss against Senegal, but then would win 101-58 over DR Congo, 85-65 over Egypt, and 83-75 over Senegal. This 83-75 win over Senegal secured South Sudan a place in the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup with two games left to play in the qualifiers. South Sudan finished the qualifiers on Saturday and Sunday with an 82-61 win over DR Congo and a 97-77 win over Egypt.
South Sudan thus finished the official part of World Cup Qualification with an impressive 11-1 record, the best in Africa and tied for the best record worldwide, even in front of the likes of defending World Champions Spain and the defending Olympic Champions USA. Most importantly, South Sudan qualified for the FIBA World Cup for the first time!
South Sudan National Basketball Team now features elite players they once did not have. After Luol Deng took over, the focus on recruiting all eligible players became paramount and with Royal Ivey as the head coach, the South Sudan National Team soon became the best ran on the continent.
Unlike many other national teams, when Royal Ivey is busing coaching in the NBA during the qualifying windows that the NBA and Euroleague do not take off for, the South Sudanese simply bring in Luol Deng as their interim head coach. So either way, South Sudan is being led by NBA talent.
South Sudan is still without some top players though. For example, Los Angeles Lakers power forward, Wenyen Gabriel, is eligible for the national team and is yet to join.
But, now that South Sudan is in the World Cup, surely many more South Sudanese eligible players will be attempting to play for their nation.
The route to the Philippines, Japan, and Indonesia may have not been likely, but South Sudan challenged themselves to be ahead of schedule and are now one of the last 32 nations in the world to have a chance at basketball supremacy.
For South Sudan, sport and basketball are synonymous and this accomplishment proves this statement more than anything ever could.
In the end, it was a just qualification, for one of the nations that cherishes basketball the most will get to see their nation represented at the sport’s marquee event: the World Cup!
Congrats South Sudan on qualifying for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup!