Ben wrote this article for the school magazine at High Tunstall College of Science – in the UK, where he is the Sport Sciences Programme Leader

So, I was minding my own business, lazy Tuesday evening, having a quick look on Facebook and an old friend from when I used to work in America popped up on chat.  He didn’t beat around the bush, the chat started with these words…”Fancy coming to Iraq with me in June?” I had to read it a couple of times before it sank in, so I responded, “Yeah sure mate, but why?”

He then went on to outline the trip, we would be coaching a team of Darfuri refugees at the Viva World Cup, a competition for regions of the world that did not have international status from FIFA.  The competition itself was hosted in the Northern Iraqi town of Erbil, capital of Kurdistan, a region that is seeking independence from Iraq.  When we arrived in Erbil, it was a bit of a culture shock, the sound of prayer from the mosques boomed out from huge speakers across the city, there was a mix of wealth in the form of our hotel and cars then also harsh poverty, children in the street with no shoes on, sporting a Cristiano Ronaldo shirt – how their lives differed from that of the Portuguese superstar.

There was, however, no time to dwell on our surroundings. We had a job to do and that was to coach a group of lads, who had never played a game of football before, in a world cup competition against professional footballers!  The training was excellent, we made bonds with the players, they trusted us and we knew that they would give absolutely everything to represent their people in the competition.

The group stage matches were incredibly tough for our players, our first game saw us play the eventual finalists the Northern Turkish Republic of Cyprus, a side packed full of Cypriot league players.  They were stronger, quicker and far more technically gifted than our boys, and the final score of 15-0 reflected this, but we now knew more about our players and this could guide our training.

The second group stage game was against Provence from near Marseille in France and as a result, the side was made up of French lower league players and lads who had been released from Marseille.  Once again, their overall power across all departments was too much for our lads.  There was still time within the 18-0 defeat for our lads to line up in a wall for a free kick, watch their opponents dummy the ball twice in an elaborate set-piece routine, then run out of the wall and smash the ball down field, much to the amusement of the crowd and bemusement of the referee.

After the group stage, we had a classification match against Western Sahara, the lads were focussed and we could all sense that something special was going to happen…and it did.  1-0 down at half time, the second half started, the ball broke on the right wing, Yaya picked the ball up, managed to get it into the box and Mubarak was there. He controlled it, moved it onto his right leg and hit it low into the bottom corner, and with that swing of a right boot, history had been made. Darfur United scored their first ever international goal and with it, it was hoped the international community would sit up and begin to realize the plight of the region, embroiled in war for years without much support from the rest of the world.

This experience was life changing for me and I am thankful to the people of i-ACT for making it happen, but the fact that a group of 16 men sang a Darfuri anthem with pride, pulled on the green of Darfur and did their region proud was the aim of the mission and I’m looking forward to being involved and seeing the progression of the players at the next Viva World Cup in Sweden 2014.

Mr Holden

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