The sporting history of South Sudan, the last African state to gain independence in 2011, will forever be associated with the city of Quezon City, in the Philippines, one of the three countries, along with Japan and Indonesia, to organize the Basketball World Cup, from August 25 to September 10. Saturday September 2, the victory of its men’s team against Angola (101-78), following that obtained against the Philippines (87-68), allowed it to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games (OJ). in Paris. A historic performance for the Bright Stars, whose progression is one of the most spectacular in world basketball in recent years.

This success against Angola, which until recently embodied the best of African basketball, sparked scenes of joy throughout the country, particularly in Juba. Present in the capital during this historic day, the Italian Stefano Cusin, coach of the South Sudanese football team, was able to measure the enthusiasm generated by this qualification for the Olympics. “People came out into the streets, they danced, they sang. There is a lot of pride, joy. For them, it’s important to see that their country can win, when we don’t always talk about it in a positive way. »

During the first round of this World Cup, South Sudan, although beaten by Puerto Rico (96-101) and Serbia (83-115), two notoriously superior selections, had for the first time flattered the patriotic fiber by dominating largely China (89-69). “I am not surprised by their progress, because the players play in the United States, France or Australia, therefore in high-level leagues,” analyzes the Senegalese Cheikh Sarr, coach of Rwanda, whose team had faced the Bright Stars in World Cup qualifying.

Dramatic personal stories

Since he was appointed in 2021, American coach Royal Ivey, a former Houston Rockets player in the NBA, can only count on expatriates due to the weakness of the local, amateur and unstructured championship. South Sudan has no indoor basketball courts.

In this country which gained its independence after decades of war against the central Sudanese power, some players have experienced dramatic personal stories. Thus, Peter Jok lost his father, a general in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), as well as one of his grandfathers, both killed during the conflict against Khartoum. Nuni Omot was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, while Majok Deng spent several years in one after fleeing his hometown of Bor at the age of 8. “This team speaks to the South Sudanese because many players had to flee the country with their families to escape the war. Many families here have experienced this,” continues Stefano Cusin.

The South Sudanese federation also managed to convince the American Carlik Jones, under contract with the Chicago Bulls, to take the nationality of the country. During the World Cup, the playmaker was one of the main architects of the Bright Stars’ qualification for the Olympics. “Royal Ivey has been relying on the same player base for over two years. We see that it is a well-established collective, with thoughtful play, aggressive defense, a good athletic level, observes Cheikh Sarr. Of course, South Sudan has its faults, sometimes displays naivety, but its progress is quite incredible, even if not surprising. »

“The mentality and rigor of the NBA”

South Sudan, which joined the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in 2013, has been able to count on the permanent investment of Luol Deng, president of the federation since 2019. Born in Wau, this former Chicago Bulls player , even if he wore the jersey of Great Britain during international competitions, he always remained attached to his roots, and his aura allowed him to convince certain players of South Sudanese origin to play for the Bright Stars . He was also able to find significant financial resources, particularly from the local government side. The latter, according to various sources, would have contributed nearly a million euros for the selection to prepare for the World Cup in the best conditions.

For Emmanuel Mavomo, former coach of Angola and then the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), nothing seems to be able to stop the progress of this team. “There has been an Olympic project for four years. South Sudan is today above the rest in Africa and this should last, because it has progressed a lot while other countries, notably Angola, have regressed. Luol Deng and Royal Ivey, who have the mentality and rigor of the NBA, have a lot to do with it. »

During two confrontations between the DRC and South Sudan, the Franco-Congolese technician was marked by the general attitude of his opponent, on and off the floor. “This selection has incredible energy. I couldn’t wait for the matches to end… And I also observed the players at their hotel bar: they seemed united, laughing together. They also seem linked by an immense patriotic fiber, a desire to give another image of their country. In my opinion, this gives them additional strength. »