South Sudan's national football team, the Bright Stars, is preparing to face Benin in Juba on Wednesday. Amid continuing conflict across the country, football offers a glimpse of hope - with a prominent guest.
Fighting between government forces and rebels in South Sudan broke out in late December 2013, plunging the country into chaos and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. But amid the violence, football offers a glimpse of hope to the country.
The South Sudan soccer team, the Bright Stars, is facing Benin in qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). The finals will be held in Gabon at the start of next year.
High level visit
Ahead of Wednesday's game, newly-elected FIFA president Gianni Infantino arrived in South Sudan on one of his first official trips since taking up the post. He inaugurated the office of the South Sudanese Football Association (SSFA) in Juba and said he was committed to improving the standard of football in Africa. He also met with President Salva Kiir.
Several players based abroad have returned to join local players in the game scheduled for this Wednesday (23.03.2016) in South Sudan's capital, Juba.
Lodule Loku Losarah flew in from Germany where he plays for regional team FC International Leipzig. "We are adjusting and learning to play with each other very well. We are very optimistic about our chances," Losarah said.
Coming home for the team
Duach Jok plays professional football in the United States. He is looking forward to representing South Sudan. "This is home and I am more than glad to be here to represent the national team, the country and the people of South Sudan," Jok told DW.
The team has been training for two weeks ahead of Wednesday's crucial match. Jok, Losarah and their colleagues want nothing less than three points for a win which would put them on top of Group C. Mali (four points) currently tops the group, South Sudan is second with three points, and Benin and Equatorial Guinea trail behind with two points and one point respectively.
A win in Juba could also bring together the people of South Sudan and put smiles on their faces. Head coach Bilal Felix Komoyangi told DW they want to prove that the country exists on the international scene.
"It is an important game for us and the people in the Republic of South Sudan as we are only five years old," Komoyangi said.
South Sudan joined the African Football confederation (CAF) and FIFA in 2012 after gaining independence from Sudan a year earlier. The Bright Stars played their first-ever international match against Uganda in July. The game ended as a 2-all draw and was followed by FIFA welcoming South Sudan to its family.
After recognition by FIFA, the new nation amazed the football world when they beat 2013 AFCON hosts Equatorial Guinea 1-0 in their Group C game to record their first ever competitive win.