MALABO, Equatorial Guinea – Reaching the African Cup of Nations quarterfinals with an entirely home-based squad is Sudan’s brightest footballing moment in more than 40 years.
Sudan beat Burkina Faso 2-1 on Monday to climb above Angola and snatch a last-eight place with cup favourite Ivory Coast from Group B.
The result not only advanced Sudan, it was also its first victory in the finals since 1970, ending a winless streak of nine matches over three tournaments.
Coach Mohamed Abdallah says the success was sparked by defeat in the opening match, when Sudan lost 1-0 to Ivory Coast but showed it could compete with the best in Africa.
“In that first match, we lost the game but we gained confidence,” Abdallah said.
As a founder member of the Confederation of African Football with its own fine football tradition, Sudan’s descent to irrelevance following its African Cup win on home soil in 1970 was hard to bear.
The east African nation hosted the inaugural Cup of Nations in 1957 when just four teams were due to compete before South Africa was thrown out because of apartheid.
Sudan failed to make the final in that first tournament, but fared slightly better in 1959 with a second-place finish in a three-team round-robin format won by host Egypt.
By 1963, the cup expanded to six teams. Sudan won its group to qualify for the final but went down 3-0 to host Ghana.
The tournament returned to Sudan in 1970, when the host had group-stage wins over Ethiopia and Cameroon, before beating Egypt in the semifinals. Sudan met powerhouse Ghana in the final where an early goal secured its only continental title.
Sudan was then overtaken by other teams, and further cup appearances in 1972 and ’76 yielded a return of just four draws.
Even during its heyday, Sudan never qualified for the World Cup and the team would not appear at the Cup of Nations for more than 30 years, eventually returning to the finals in 2008 only to lose all three group matches.
After so many meagre years, coach Abdallah said continuity and faith in young players was finally bringing the team renewed success.
Apart from a brief period in 2009-10, Abdallah has been in charge of the national side since 2004, and said his familiarity with his home-based players helped.
“It’s very important. You have to follow and see the players all the time,” he said. “I have enough time to know all my players because they all play in Sudan.”
Abdallah hopes that will change with the added exposure his team is getting in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
“One of my objectives is to have a few players get to play outside,” he said.
The 2-2 draw against Angola included Sudan’s first goals in the finals since 1976, but also featured two glaring defensive errors.
“I’m trying to minimize the small mistakes of our inexperienced defenders against high-quality strikers,” Abdallah said. “I think we are improving.”
Finding the balance between defence and attack was crucial, he said. “You can’t tell the players just to attack. We have to defend well and use our chances.”
Sudan will play Zambia in the last eight on Saturday.