South Sudan starts unlikely quest to reach 2018 World Cup

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) A month after celebrating its first win in a competitive game, South Sudan will make its debut in World Cup qualifying on Wednesday as Africa’s lowest-ranked countries begin their quests to reach soccer’s biggest tournament.

None of them are expected to make it to the World Cup in Russia in 2018, but for South Sudan this is still a big moment.

The world’s newest nation only gained independence from Sudan in 2011, joined the Confederation of African Football and FIFA in 2012, and achieved its best result to date last month by beating Equatorial Guinea in an African Cup of Nations qualifier.

The team could make more history against Mauritania in their two-leg 2018 World Cup qualifying tie. Although itself a minnow, Mauritania is still ranked 55 places higher than South Sudan.

Without any star players at his disposal, South Sudan coach Lee Sung-jea instead urged their fans to pack the stadium in the capital Juba and make the difference against Mauritania in Wednesday’s first leg.

”We call upon our fans to come in large numbers and cheer the team,” Lee, a South Korean, said in a telephone interview from Juba. ”We are ready for our opponents and we know what to expect.”

Even a victory over Mauritania would only get South Sudan through to Africa’s second round of qualifying, where even bigger teams wait.

But the players and the fans have been boosted by that 1-0 win over Equatorial Guinea – itself an African Cup semifinalist earlier this year.

Atak Lual made a name for himself by scoring the goal against Equatorial Guinea. Two of the team’s best players, defender Friday Zico and midfielder Chol Dhuor Ngor, turn out for lower league clubs in Australia.

South Sudan still won’t be the biggest outsider among the 26 who start qualifying this week.

Somalia will play Niger on Friday and Djibouti, Africa’s lowest-ranked team and one of the four weakest by ranking in international soccer, faces Swaziland.

The 13 that progress to the second round next month will join top sides like reigning African champion Ivory Coast, Algeria, and former World Cup quarterfinalists Ghana and Senegal. After that, there’s a third and final round of qualifying to decide Africa’s five teams at the World Cup.

In the best turnout in years, only one of the continent’s 54 teams isn’t involved in 2018 qualifying: Zimbabwe was thrown out by FIFA for failing after several warnings to pay a former national team coach wages he was owed.