South Sudan: Amy Lasu - Shining Hope for South Sudanese Football

soccer pitch
25 September 2021

South Sudanese women's football team captain Amy Lasu has three beaded bracelets on her left hand; a black one bearing the name Lauya which belongs to her paternal grandfather Lauya Sururu Joja, and two others which have national flags of her "home" countries, South Sudan and Kenya.

The black one is closest to her wrist while the one with the South Sudanese flag significantly sits on top the Kenyan one.

"This is the only thing that connects me to my grandpa because I've never met him. In fact, I've never met my grandparents from both sides. But from what I hear, he (Lauya) was a nice guy and I wish I met him," Lasu says of the black bracelet.

"The bracelet with South Sudanese flags is all about my identity, my country of origin. I'm proud of it. The Kenyan one is for appreciating the country for making me who I am today because all my life I've lived in Kenya," said Lasu, captain of South Sudan national women's football team.

Lasu arrived in Kenya at the age of three as her family fled civil war in Sudan in 1998 "in search of better education and opportunities", her mother Mary Loki recalls. At the height of civil war, Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) led by John Garang was recruiting young South Sudanese boys to join the fight for independence. They lived in the capital Khartoum but there were fears that Lasu's brother Joja, 11 at the time, would be lured to the SPLA like many other young South Sudanese boys.

"There was war in the South and young boys were being taken for military-like training to join SPLA. The education system was also not good. Everything was in Arabic and English was just a subject. We discussed with their father and decided the best thing for the children was to come to Kenya," Loki explains.

Lasu's father Michael Lauya was already in Kenya, having done his undergraduate degree in Public Health at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. After settling in Nairobi's South B state, her parents proudly accomplished their dream of providing good education and setting them up for better opportunities in life. Lasu and her siblings successfully went through Kenya's education system.

Lasu, though was special. She not only graduated with a Bachelors' degree in Human Resource Management from Moi University in 2018 but also honed her football talent featuring in Kenya's Women Premier League (WPL) for Gatundu Sports (Gaspo) and Makolanders. Her last season in Kenya saw her guide Makolanders to a ninth place finish in the league as skipper, in the process scoring 24 goals - her best return since making her WPL debut in January 2017.

Inevitably, her exploits caught the eye of South Sudan Football Association (SSFA) who were in the process of establishing a national team for the 2019 Council of East and Central Africa Football Association (Cecafa) Women's Championship to be held later in November in Tanzania. In her own words, "a bitter-sweet moment" of her football career.

"Growing up I always wondered when we would have our own national team because I always dreamt of playing for my country. Kenyan coaches had approached me to play for their national team (Harambee Starlets) that year but I turned down the offer so this call-up was a dream come true," Lasu, who flew to Juba on November 6 for a week-long training camp, said.

"I was also kind of sad because I was going to leave Kenya for good. I have lived all my life in Kenya and all my friends were in Kenya. I had never been to South Sudan so I was going to start life afresh," Lasu, who a week later would lead the team out for their first international match in Dar es Salaam, said.

On November 16, 2019, South Sudan's Bright Starlets made history when they played home team Tanzania in the 2019 Cecafa Women Senior Challenge Cup at a fully packed Azam Complex in Chamazi. The joy of representing their country for the first time superseded the agony of a 9-0 drubbing at the hands of the ruthless hosts.

"We knew it was going to be tough since Tanzania is a very experienced side. The score line didn't really matter to us, we were just happy to be taking our first step as a national team and also getting to learn from one of the best teams in the region," Lasu, who two days later became the first female player to score for South Sudan, said.

The lanky midfielder led from the front with a brace in their second Group 'A' game against Zanzibar. She opened the scoring with a peach of a freekick and assisted the fourth goal before completing the rout in the 82nd minute as Bright Starlets ran out 5-0 winners.

They bowed out of the tournament after a 3-0 loss to Burundi, but the Cecafa experience had laid down a marker for women's football in South Sudan. And the ray of hope finally arrived in September last year when SSFA appointed former Ugandan international Jean Sseninde as a consultant to implement the federation's four-year women's football plan. Subsequently, Lasu was appointed SSFA's player ambassador for women football during the launch of the project dubbed "Stars Unite" in December 2020.

Improving Bright Starlets was at the heart of the project and there was no better way to achieve that than forming a local league to widen the pool of players for national team selectors. The eight-team league started in February this year and ended in May, with Yei Join Stars emerging champions on 33 points from 14 matches. However, it has not been smooth sailing with insecurity, cultural stereotypes and match day logistics eternal challenges in the inaugural season.

"We travel to match venues by air because of insecurity in the country, some areas cannot be accessed by road. The federation has done well in the first season by financing match day logistics for all the clubs.

"The league has helped improve the standards of the women's game because more girls are coming out to play football. A lot of talent has been discovered since the society has started changing its mentality and are allowing girls to play football. In the past, this was considered a taboo," Lasu, who has witnessed patriarchy first hand in a league match between Juba Super Stars and Aweil, said.

On April 17, South Sudan's Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management Peter Mayen stormed Aweil's home ground demanding that his wife, Aluel "Messi" Garang be substituted. Aluel had just returned to the team after maternity leave.

"He arrived when the first half was just about to end and he started arguing with the coaching staff of Aweil. There was a scuffle between his bodyguards and the fans who were booing him. They did not want Aluel to leave because she is their star player," recalls Lasu of the match that was temporarily halted in the second half.

"After half time, he demanded Aluel be substituted so that he could take her home. The Aweil coaches had no option because he (Mayen) is a powerful man in government. But Aweil's fans did not take it kindly and blocked the exit gate to prevent him from leaving the pitch. The next thing we heard were gun shots as he (Mayen) tried to force his way out with Aluel in his car," Lasu told Nation Sports.

As fans scattered to make way for Mayen's speeding car, players lay flat on the ground to avoid falling victim to stray bullets. After a 20-minute stoppage, play resumed with both sides settling for a barren draw.

"Players were really terrified by the incident. I have never seen something like that in my football life, I was really scared and I think the game should have been cancelled altogether," the Juba Super Stars captain says.

The challenges notwithstanding, Lasu looks back at the baby steps of "Star Unite" project with pride as women have got a new lease of life through football.

"People here love football and most of grounds are usually packed. When we go to play in a place like Yei which is known for insecurity, fans turn up in large numbers. They forget about their tribes and cheer their team as one which shows football can be used to restore peace and unity in this country.

"We have women who have taken referee and coaching courses and this means football is giving them hope for a better life. I'm also excited about this project because a lot of girls look up to me. More girls coming out to play means there are no early marriages and pregnancies which motivates me to work even harder," noted Lasu, herself a CAF "D" coaching license holder.

As football continues to score big for peace and stability in South Sudan, Lasu has maintained her scoring touch. She emerged top scorer in the league with 11 goals from 14 matches, a trait her mother half-jokingly suggests she inherited from her father.

"Her father was a striker and used to play for (multiple South Sudan champions) Malakia. I see a lot of similarities between them especially the touch and finishing because he used to score a lot of goals," said Loki of her spouse who died on February 16, 2010. "I'm so proud of her for what she has achieved through football."

SSFA has since revamped the Bright Starlets technical bench with the appointment of former South African international Shilene Booysen (head coach) and former Kenyan international Florence "Duah" Adhiambo (assistant), both on two-year contracts.

"I was very excited to see coach Duah here because when she was coaching me at Makolanders, I used to jokingly tell her that she would come here one day. She's very intelligent and has a deep understanding of the game. Coach Shilene also comes in with a lot of experience and knowledge of women's football, having worked in Banyana Banyana (South Africa national team) set-up," explained Lasu who believes the appointment of the experienced duo bodes well with her dream to take South Sudan to their first Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) or World Cup.

"We have made good progress within a short time so that gives us a lot of hope. My dream is to see South Sudan play in Afcon or even the World Cup. They say if your dreams don't scare you, they are not big enough, so definitely we have to dream big," underlined Lasu.

Kenya stands in the way of South Sudan as the two nations will clash in the first round of Afcon 2022 qualifiers with the winner facing either Ethiopia or Uganda in the second round for a slot in the tournament finals.

"When I first saw the fixture, I was excited because I know all Kenyan players having played against them in their local league. It will be an interesting match since this is like my first home (South Sudan) playing against my second home (Kenya). Kenya have a lot of quality in their team and I'm looking forward to this match," said a bubbly Lasu of the October fixture, just three months after South Sudan celebrate their 10th independence anniversary on July 9.

If only the outcome of this match could follow the order of bracelets on Lasu's left hand, South Sudan on top of Kenya, the entire nation will start believing and unite around the beautiful game.

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