Afcon 2021: Sudan on the up, says ex-Newcastle man Lee Clark

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Sudan players celebrate qualifying for the Fifa Arab CupSudan qualified for the Fifa Arab Cup, but their performances at the tournament led to the sacking of coach Hubert Velud

Sudan are on the right track to make more of an impact in African football, according to former Newcastle United and Fulham midfielder Lee Clark.

Last year Clark spent three months coaching one of Sudan's leading clubs, Al Merrikh, with several of his players also representing the national team.

Sudan will be playing at the Africa Cup of Nations this month for the first time since 2012, and despite the side relying heavily on locally-based players Clark says there is enough talent in the country.

"Sudanese football is on the up", the former Huddersfield Town and Birmingham City manager told BBC Sport Africa.

"I had a big group of players who were playing a big part in that [national team], so the standard was good, the players were so respectful - very, very hard working, listened to every word you said."

The upcoming tournament in Cameroon will be just Sudan's third appearance at the Nations Cup since 1976, something of a fall from grace for one of the founding nations of the Confederation of African Football (Caf).

Indeed, the first statutes for Caf were signed at a hotel in the Sudanese capital Khartoum in 1957, with the country hosting the first ever Nations Cup later that year.

Sudan finished as runners-up in 1959 and 1963 before winning the title on home soil in 1970. But, after a group-stage exit in 1976, the Secretary Birds went 32 years without qualifying for the continental showpiece event.

'Underestimate Sudan at your peril'

Lee Clark during his time working with Sudanese club Al MerrikhLee Clark is now managing in Oman after his stint with Sudanese club Al Merrikh

Clark feels the game in Sudan is improving and was impressed with what he saw from them their Nations Cup qualification, including a shock 2-0 win over visiting South Africa to ensure they qualified for the finals at the expense of Bafana Bafana.

"I was at the qualification game against South Africa when everyone had Sudan as the underdog, and there they played terrifically well that night, and fully deserved the win to qualify," the 49-year-old added.

"I think they enjoy the underdog tag, I think they enjoy the experience. They have some very, very talented players - underestimate them at your peril."

Since then, their performances at last year's Fifa Arab Cup saw Hubert Velud sacked and replaced as coach by Burhan Tia.

Sudan have been drawn in a difficult group at the Nations Cup that alongside three-time champions Nigeria and Egypt - the tournament's most successful team with seven titles - as well as Guinea-Bissau.

"I think they'll be excited by coming up against these countries, and they'll not worry about the challenge." Clark added.

"They'll see it as a great opportunity for them as a country to put themselves on the map and to try and upset the big guys."

Sudan begin their campaign against Guinea-Bissau on Tuesday, 11 January.

Meanwhile, Clark is also confident that the Sudan Football Federation is putting in place some regulations that will help develop players for the future.

"Our starting 11 had to include at least one Under-20 player, and one Under-23 player," he explained.

"Even if we substituted those guys, we had to replace them with those age groups as well. I thought that was a really good way of developing young players, not just for the clubs, but also for the national teams."

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