Under Fiba World Cup spotlight, conflict-torn South Sudan unites behind its national squad

South Sudan in the Fiba World Cup in Manila.

South Sudan in the Fiba World Cup in Manila. –MARLO CUETO/

There are a lot of reasons for South Sudan to stay defiant in the classification phase even after crashing out of Fiba World Cup contention.

Around 11 million, in fact.

“The reason why this is so important and means a lot is because we have so much division, a lot of trouble, a lot of conflict going on in our country,” forward Kuany Ngor Kuany said shortly after a 115-83 loss to Serbia that had South Sudan sliding into the consolation round.

“Whenever the basketball team plays, it’s literally the one time when everybody comes together,” he added. “There are no more tribes, no more ‘I’m from the so-so region.’ Everyone is wearing the same flag—and that is South Sudan.”

If only things were the same for Gilas Pilipinas.

The team has become a magnet of division at a time when the Philippines is hosting the global spectacle.

Gilas’ dry spell in this World Cup—the team has yet to win a game—has understandably caused disappointment for its fans. And the cracks in support seem to grow deeper every day.

Gate attendance at Smart Araneta Coliseum during Philippine games also saw a slight dip: 12,784 watched Gilas’ match against Angola while 11,821 showed up in the duel versus Italy, with spectators heading for the exits with over three minutes left in the game.

Kiefer Ravena Gilas Pilipinas Fiba World Cup

Gilas Pilipinas huddles up during a game against South Sudan in the Fiba World Cup classification. -MARLO CUETO/

Social media has been a hotbed of vitriol as well, the glut being directed towards national coach Chot Reyes, who has been showered with jeers during pregame introductions.

Gilas ace Jordan Clarkson said the boos were dispiriting, calling them “a little weird.”

And to think Fiba once minted Filipinos as the best fans in the world.

Kuany suggested that much of the Bright Stars’ fight is anchored on making the most of the platform it now has.

“That is what this basketball team stands for. It stands for unity, for peace and development in the country—and a way to change the narrative,” he said. “[T]hat’s why it’s so much bigger than basketball.”

“We’re going to continue to do our best and use that as a tool to promote the image of our country,” he said.

They could get an even bigger platform.

South Sudan kept its hopes of an Olympic appearance alive by drubbing the Philippines, 87-68, at the Big Dome on Tuesday.

Already reeling from increasing intercommunal clashes while trying to repair the effects of a violent civil war that started a decade ago, South Sudan is also dealing with dire humanitarian conditions as more than two-thirds of its close to 11 million population is grappling with severe food insecurity.

Cheering for its basketball squad, it seems, helps the country cope.

“Through basketball, we share the vision of camaraderie, friendship, love, sportsmanship and togetherness,” South Sudan coach Royal Ivey said. “Everybody is watching us, so they come together, they unite.”

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