Darfur United is a team like no other. Ten weeks ago the players left their homes, families and friends to “investigate” an invitation to try-out for an All-Star Darfuri refugee team…I can’t imagine at any stage during that trip to camp Djabal that anybody truly believed they would be playing against professional teams in Iraqi Kurdistan in a little over two months time.

My involvement with the team came over breakfast on a beautiful Wednesday morning at a little diner located right next to the pacific ocean…the kind of diner where discussions of refugee soccer teams and round trips to Africa and Iraq are rarer than snow in the Chadian summer…but on that blessed day, I was extended a surprising invitation to join, what was unbeknownst to me at the time, the best team in the world.

Gabriel Stauring is a remarkable kind of guy, quiet, unassuming and able to shoulder an incredible load of care, commitment and dedication to those most in need, without a single ounce or shred of want for acknowledgement or recognition.  I had no idea as to the magnitude of his work, talent and sheer persistence, but I would learn very soon.  And it would open my eyes to another world and the realization that we can all make a difference, more so than we can ever truly understand!

The team of volunteers within i-ACT is beyond amazing. Talented, hard working, loyal and caring would be a few of the simple descriptions that spring to mind. Their daily mission, to lend whatever they can of their time and substantial expertise to help those who need help the most.  To work with them on their day to day challenges, but even more so, to create hope and opportunity for their future, so that everyone regardless of situation or location can live with the hope that tomorrow will be worth waiting for.

Abdelhamid was the standout Goalkeeper during Darfur United’s try-outs. His buddy Ismail from Farshana camp, also a goalkeeper, worked hard everyday to try to grasp the #1 spot, but was a little behind his teammate over the 12 days in Chad.

On arrival in Kurdistan, the team was fortunate enough to enjoy the addition of coach Ben Holden to the Darfur United training staff. Ben a long time friend and colleague is an outstanding goalkeeper coach and during his training with the keepers quickly felt that Ismail had worked so hard during the 8 week team training camp that he was now indeed ahead of his buddy Abdelhamid and would be the right choice to start the game on June 4th.

Ismail was delighted to be presented with the opportunity to start the tournament, a smile as wide as the grand canyon spread across his face and he gave me a big hug that squeezed my innards, as I told him that he would be starting our first historic game at VIVA 2012.

It was a big decision, with Ismail clearly understanding that he was #2 to his friend on arrival.

Abdelhamid of course was as gracious as expected and smiled, before hugging his teammate with the kind of hug that only deep friends can give.

During the game Ismail was outstanding. The team conceded many goals, but it would have been many more if it wasn’t for the heroics from the giant teddy bear protecting the goal. He was fearless coming out for the ball as the “physical” Cypriots laid siege on the Darfuri “guardian of the posts.”

Ismail walked off the field at the end disappointed with his game. I quickly reminded him that what he had just done was a feat of incredible effort and without his starring performance, and in reality without that performance, we may have had a new world record score for international football!

The point of the story is this…It meant everything for Ismail to play that game, being given the chance to pull on that jersey was more than he ever expected or could ever have wished for. I know he anticipated sitting on the bench and supporting his great friend Abdelhamid and being beyond happy to even have the opportunity to be a substitute. I know because he told me.

Early the next morning as I reached the elevators to return to my room for training preparation I was caught up by the bounding, gentle giant who tapped me on the shoulder just as I was about to push the button.

“Coach, can I talk please?” He said with a big smile on his face!

“Of course”

Ismail spent the next two minutes looking into my eyes, his smile ever present on his face as he explained to me that it is was very important that I played Abdelhamid in the next game, that his wrist was hurting and that it would only be right that Abdelhamid was to start and he would sit on the bench, but play anywhere if I needed him.

His smile gave him away. His wrist was no doubt a “little” sore, but nothing that would stop this hulk of a keeper from playing.

But in his heart he wanted his friend to have a chance, he was sacrificing himself so that his brother might get the chance to experience the opportunity to pull on the jersey and represent Darfur United. In the biggest game of his life.

This is most likely the only time Ismail will ever have the opportunity to play football in the VIVA World Cup, in a different country, with the team and team-mates he loves so dearly and he didn’t think twice about stepping aside to make his friends dream come true too! Selfless to the core.

Abdelhamid started the next game.

Just before kick-off I turned to Ismail and said “shokran,” thank you, in Arabic. He smiled at me a “knowing” smile and gave me a big thumbs-up, then went about cheering Abdelhamid’s every involvement in the game. I watched the two hug at the final whistle.

That’s why we are called United.

Coach Mark Hodson

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