It cannot be a more stark difference. The football that Darfur United has played in the last six days at training camp in Östersund, Sweden; and the first days of tryouts back in refugee camp Djabal in eastern Chad in 2012. Through it all, Coach Mark Hodson has mentored and coached the team from the deserts of the Sahel to the bustling streets of Iraqi Kurdistan to the lakes and forests of Sweden.
Hours before the second game at training camp against a local club, Coach Mark runs the team through passing drills that force them to check to the ball, move into space, and play simple football. It is brilliant and inspiring.
The pace of the passes, the sound of cleats solidly connecting with the ball, the determined expressions on the players’ faces, and the encouraging yet serious feedback given by Coach Mark echo throughout Jämtkraft Arena.
The impressive development of Darfur United brings tears to my eyes and a tingling feeling creeps into my heart: true pride. This comes not just from the team members playing football beautifully (of course they still have so much to learn), but knowing what playing beautifully means to each of them personally as athletes, together as a team, and in honor of their families from Darfur, Sudan.
Darfur United is about pride. Developing and honoring the pride in yourself. Walking with your head up as a representative of a community, as an ambassador of Darfur, and as an example for refugee athletes everywhere. These players understand this and play with Darfuri pride.
There will always be a special place in my heart for Darfur United. In 2012, as the team made its first international appearance and scored its first goal at the VIVA World Football Cup in Iraqi Kurdistan, my daughter Leila Paz was coming into the world. Thousands of miles apart, the team honored her with the nickname “the Darfur princess.”
On her second birthday in 2014, Leila met most of the original team for the first time in Sweden during the CONIFA World Football Cup. Now, as a five-year-old, the players, new and old, have embraced Leila as if she was their own. Yesterday, she eagerly took selfies with each and every one of her friends. She sat with them for lunch and rode in the team van, accompanied by only the players. As I try to find the words to describe the moments when Saleh, Mohammed Bashara, Mustapha, or any of the other players pick her up in their arms, smiling and laughing with her, tears fill my eyes.
I am proud to see their progress from boys to men (although I will likely always refer to them as boys), on and off the field. I am proud to hear they are attending schools, working, and beginning to raise their own families. I am proud to call Darfur United a part of my family.
I am, and will always be, a proud supporter of Darfur United.
Show your pride in Darfur United and join the supporters club, The Pride. Your membership will help the team play in Zimbabwe on December 10, which is the International Day of Peace, against Matabeleland Select.