Melbourne Victory attacker Kenny Athiu hopes South Sudan’s progression to the group stage of African Cup of Nations Qualification augurs a new era for his homeland.
Athiu started both games for the Bright Stars as they booked their place in the group stages during the most recent international window with his side downing Seychelles 3-1 on aggregate earlier this month.
With the triumphs propelling the world’s youngest state up 11 places to 162 in the latest FIFA World Rankings – the highest since they were ranked 153rd in 2017 – South Sudan will now prepare to compete in a group with Burkina Faso, Uganda and Malawi for a spot at AFCON 2021.
That campaign will kick-off on November 14 when they travel to face Malawi.
Athiu, a bracelet in the colours of the South Sudanese flag taking pride of place on his wrist in the wake of the triumph over Seychelles, is hopeful both the wins and the coming slate of matches will mark the beginning of an extended period of growth and success.
“It feels like the team was getting stronger the last few times I’ve gone out there,” he told FTBL.
“And a few of the other boys that have been there a long time have said the team is improving every time. We’re very optimistic that we can get a few good results to hopefully qualify for the Cup of Nations in 2021.
“I think the sky is the limit, there’s so much potential.
“The only thing holding us back is the grassroots level, there’s no proper setup of stadiums and that since we’ve become independent.
“But we’ve only become independent not too long ago so hopefully we’ll make great strides in our independence and in the next couple of years, once people start investing in the local grounds or local teams and that it can only get bigger.
“I think South Sudan has huge potential to be, hopefully one day, a powerhouse in African football.”
For Athiu, who has described representing South Sudan as walking the same path as his father and grandfather in their fight for the nation’s independence, the fixtures against Seychelles represented a special milestone.
A member of the team that drew and lost against Equatorial Guinea in World Cup qualifiers in September, the victories over Seychelles were the first for the 27-year-old in a South Sudanese shirt
“We were really happy we won the game but we were disappointed because we felt we should have won by more, especially knowing that there were two legs and we needed to go to Seychelles,” Athiu said about the moments after the final whistle of South Sudan’s initial 2-1 win.
“We were happy we won the game but there was obviously a bit of disappointment that we didn’t win by more.
“For me, I didn’t really know how I felt at the moment of the final whistle.
“It felt more like we won the game now let’s go on and win the next one. When I went home and had time to reflect, I had family calling me and everyone was really happy that’s when it became, ‘Wow, I just won my first game’”
His feelings, though, were a bit less conflicted after the win in the return leg was sealed.
“There was a bit of a party back at the hotel,” smiled Athiu.
“There were a few people from the federation that came out to the game. The president of the federation was there so they were saying how proud they were of the team.
“The country is in turmoil, but they were saying how football was one of the things that brings everyone together to support the national team. Everyone was really happy for us.”