On the day you took your driving test, imagine showing up at the driving school and the instructor leading you to an F-50 Fighter Jet and throwing you the keys……How many would climb in the cockpit?

That’s the only way I can conceptualize the amazing experience that these magnificent men from Darfur United undertook on a balmy evening somewhere in Northern Iraq.

The team bus driver appears to have graduated from his previous job as an in-patient at the local asylum and our journeys to training and the grounds have involved more twists & turns than a trip to six flags, various arrivals at wrong locations and the running over of 3 Kurdistan soccer fans (who I’m pleased to report are fine!)…and that’s only on the occasions when he actually showed up!

The change to a five o’clock kick-off with approximately 12 hours notice certainly required a quick adjustment of plans, but the team unfazed as ever were ready…well as ready as they could be for the juggernaut coming our way!

There can be moments (hopefully) in life when you almost become a spectator in your own experience. It’s like a warm, fuzzy “something” washes over your body and you find yourself planted to the spot, not quite in control of your thoughts or senses as a seemingly higher power takes control. The boys led by their newly appointed captain and Lion-Hearted leader Sulieman took the field for the first time, a single file of majestic, proud heroes and brothers…family to the core, the Darfur United patch swelling above their heart, emotions catapulting around their bodies as their feet sampled the taste of a grass soccer field for the first time in their minute’s old career as International Soccer Players and the shining light for the people of Darfur.

As coach, a special moment…I turned away, too happy to watch as they walked to center field. I didn’t need to see. I saw their first steps onto that field and I was complete.

The ceremony and circumstance of International football requires that both teams stand in line for the playing of the “national anthems.” The Northern Cyprus team, an impressive collection of largely professional players from the Cyprus and Turkish leagues looked focused, and stood bolt upright as their anthem blasted from the antiquated Kurdish sound system.

A nervous silence rustled through the crowd as no noise came from the speakers in acknowledgement of the Darfuri team. There was no musical recording to accompany our boys, no “Darfuri anthem” per say, but you know by now that we don’t take the easy or conventional route in anything we do. They’re too special for that.

A few nervous glances were shared player to player, a nod from the captain to the team, shoulders went back, players looked straight ahead, and they started to sing!

I have no idea what words were being delivered, but it was beautiful, it was from the heart and it was what the players wanted. Man, does this team know how to deliver!

The game was an introduction that the players will never forget. The Northern Cyprus team, fit, technical and absolutely ruthless in front of goal. Darfur has never experienced a level of play remotely close to their introduction to the VIVA Competition, but not once, not for one second did they ever give up, did they ever look defeated. They continued to play, they continued to go forward with the ball and they continued to be United. My voice hoarse from barking out directions from the sidelines, just little things, reminders that the most important thing was to keep working, keep being a team and you know they didn’t disappoint!

At the end of the game as I approached the Cyprus coach to congratulate him and his truly outstanding team on their performance, he grabbed my hand with both of his looked me in the eyes and with the deepest sincerity sais, ”Congratulations, I have nothing but respect for your work and your team, you should all be proud.” I smiled back at him, unable to give much of a response. The team had delivered again and everyone in the stadium knew that this was a victory. A victory for a team that was never supposed to make it!

As I floated off the field it was almost impossible to make it to the changing rooms as we were besieged by TV cameras and microphones from every angle, ”Please, an interview please”…”Just one question please!” The Cyprus team victorious and outstanding faced a much easier route, the people and the media wanted Darfur.

We left the stadium to a standing ovation from the fans lining the route to the bus, kids clambered for a photograph, to shake the players hands and to ask them their names. Our armed police escort, shepherded us onto the bus and I took one last moment to look at the team that had just lost their first game 15-0. They were smiling, they were hugging, shaking hands, glowing, beaming. If you could package happiness, it was on that bus. Then we headed to the “Opening Ceremony.”

If they only truly knew how amazing they are!

Head Coach
Mark Hodson

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