The day is March 23rd, 2016. The South Sudan national soccer team is hosting Benin in an African Cup of Nations qualifying match in the South Sudanese capital city of Juba. It is two hours before a scheduled 6:30 PM kickoff. It is 113 degrees.
The players speed through town in a bus led by a police escort, stopping not once and weaving through the early evening traffic. Men, women, and children line the streets and surrounding dirt, waving flags and cheering for their countrymen as they make their way to Juba Stadium.
As the bus nears the ground, the players can see inside. The place is already packed. As they get off the bus and make their way to the dressing room, the players can hear the crowd roaring, songs and horns echoing far and wide, the sounds combining with the sweltering heat to create an almost surreal, hazy buzz in the air.
Duach Jock is in the South Sudanese squad. As he jogs out of the tunnel with his teammates, kickoff now just minutes away, he comes to a complete stop, looking all around the stadium and waving to the over-capacity crowd exceeding 12,000, thousands more encompassing the stadium hoping to get just a peak of the action.
“It was one of the moments where I had to stop and just take a breath,” he said. “It was one of those moments when life stops, and you feel the goosebumps. It was a moment that felt larger than life, knowing that these are my people, and knowing what these people are going through on a daily basis, and then seeing the way they look at you, seeing what you mean to them. I had to stop and soak it all up. Then it was time to get on with the game.”
South Sudan go on to lose 2-1 on this day to a powerful Benin side led by Aston Villa’s Rudy Gestede and West Bromwich Albion’s Stephane Sessegnon. It is a tough result for the home side who played one of their better matches of the ACN qualifying cycle. But for a team like South Sudan, the day is about far more than just the scoreline. For Duach and his people, it is about hope for a better future.
“Seeing the country unified like that, it’s powerful. It sends a message to the people who are so often divided by tribal war. It shows what South Sudan is capable of when we are together as one.”
Duach was born in Ethiopia in 1986 to South Sudanese parents. After living the first eight years of his life in South Sudan, Duach and his family immigrated to America, coming first to the state of Texas before making it to San Diego a year later.
He and his family lived in City Heights, one of the most diverse and immigrant heavy communities within San Diego. He began playing soccer with a youth team in City Heights made up of mostly Sudanese immigrant kids called Eagle Nile, coached by Miyong Kuon. He joined the San Diego Surf club at the age of 13, being discovered by long time Surf coach Joe Panian.
“Joe found me playing at a park one day in City Heights. He said, ‘hey, you look like you could help my club’. Little did I know at the time, that would be one of the most important periods in my whole life. I was a street baller when I first came to San Diego. After that bit of time with Eagle Nile and then with Surf, I became a soccer player.”
Duach went on to play for Surf and Mission Bay High School, also excelling as a track-star at Buccaneer Stadium. After playing locally at the collegiate level for Point Loma Nazarene University, Duach went on to play professionally, with stints in England, Mexico, Texas, and becoming a fan favorite for both the Orange County Blues of the USL, and the San Diego Flash, a team he served as a ball-boy for in his early teenage years. He is currently a member of the North County Battalion, playing a major role in their inaugural NPSL season in 2016. At 6 feet 6 inches tall, and customarily running things in the center of the backline, he is unmistakable on the pitch.
Now at the age of 29, life has come full circle for Duach, as he proudly represents his homeland as a full international, the South Sudan being officially recognized as a country in 2011, with an official FIFA sanctioned football association being formed soon after. In 2013, Duach was first called into the South Sudan set-up, and since then, suiting up for his country has been the ultimate source of pride and passion. Here in 2016, representing South Sudan as a footballer has opened the door to a much bigger opportunity, one that transcends soccer while utilizing the game as a method for unity in a war torn nation.
In a region long plagued by violence and brutality, the current situation is as dyer as ever. An ongoing civil-war (which began in 2013) between two separate military groups rages in the streets and in the surrounding wilderness, leaving thousands of dead soldiers and civilians in its wake. The two largest ethnic tribes of South Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer, are at the forefront of the conflict.
In April of this year, there was hope for peace, as a transitional government was put in place, with President Salva Kiir (of the Dinka group) and South Sudan’s first ever Vice President Riek Machar (loyal to the Nuer) assuming important leadership roles. However, thousands in the region do not trust the politicians, after years of failed promises and attempts to achieve peace and unity. Violence has continued since the transitional government took control, gun fire and even air strikes being routine occurrences in Juba and other cities, with lives lost everyday, and the toll of civilian casualties rising at a particularly agonizing rate. This is where Duach and his fellow South Sudanese footballers come into the discussion with a campaign known simply as “Football for Peace South Sudan”.
“When we are playing these games in Juba,” Duach said with a smile, “there are people with connections to all 64 tribes of the region who are in attendance, and for entire days, they are all hugging, singing, and waving one flag. Ourselves, the players, we all come from different backgrounds. There are a lot of guys who are Dinka, and a lot of guys who are Nuer, guys who have lost family members to the civil-war violence. It is truly amazing what happens when we put on that uniform. There are no tribes. There are no ethnic groups. There is only South Sudan. That is the power of football. It unites people in a way that almost nothing else can. And that’s why we must use football to accomplish peace. It will not be easy, but it can be done.”
Not only will it not be easy, it will not be quick. The conflicts in the region have decades and even centuries of history to them, which is part of what makes peace seem so unreachable at times.
“In all honesty,” Duach said, “it is the older generation that carries on much of this violence, and you have to understand why that is. So much of it is revenge based, personal vendettas from people who have lost family. It becomes an eye for an eye, and that is the cycle we must stop. That is the cycle we have to change, otherwise it will never stop. In order to do that, you have to think long term. It is going to take generations to change this cycle. It is going to take our children teaching their children. Peace can replace war in South Sudan, but we have to show that to the people, and there’s no better way right now than through football and the South Sudan national team.”
Duach has already begun to spread word of the campaign to the international community. #FootballForPeaceSouthSudan has already gained massive traction on social media, and many of Duach’s friends in the soccer world have posed for pictures along with their teams holding up #FootballForPeaceSouthSudan signs. One such moment, with Duach’s current team, the North County Battalion, came before the side’s NPSL Round of 16 playoff affair in Santa Rosa against the eventual West Region Champion Sonoma County Sol.
“It was almost indescribable,” Duach said. “I told the boys I had the South Sudan flag, and asked them if they would pose for a picture with it before kickoff. I didn’t have to pull anyone’s arm or ask anyone twice. They were all about it, as was the owner of the club, Jason Barbato. That said a lot to me about the Battalion, that they all look to me as their brother, and I look at all of them the same way. It was a special moment.”
Some of the Battalion players and coaches have known Duach for years. Others this season were alongside him for the first time. In either case, the South Sudanese San Diegan sees every conversation about his motherland in East Africa as a chance to shed light.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to give opportunity,” Duach says. “When I’m talking with someone in the western world, I have an opportunity to help educate them. Some people are already very knowledgeable, and want to know more about the conflicts and what they can do to help. Others might not even know where Sudan or South Sudan is, but I will make sure that they do. If they have any interest at all, I want to help further that interest.”
The word opportunity is perhaps no more apparent than when Duach gets to interact with children in Juba and other areas of South Sudan.
“Those are the interactions that sometimes leave me speechless,” he says. “I see a part of myself in all of them. I often feel guilt, because as a kid, my family and I escaped a place that they are not able to run from. They look at me and the rest of my national teammates as icons. Seeing them smile often brings tears to my eyes, and knowing that with everything they face in their daily lives, the battles, avoiding gun fire, often having no food, no shelter, struggling to find water… knowing that I somehow have an opportunity to make them happy, even for a single moment, that brings a smile to my heart, and it makes me want to do more for them.”
Men like Duach Jock prove that soccer is more than just a game. It is a social construct capable of accomplishing things that no politician ever could. No matter where you are in the world, #FootballForPeaceSouthSudan is a movement that you can be a part of. It represents the power of football, in South Sudan and everywhere else on this planet. It is a consciousness, a willingness to think for the future of civilization, and use something we all love to achieve something we all desire. Peace. Love. Unity.