World News

South Sudan prays, fields soccer team after split

JUBA (Reuters) - South Sudanese prayed for the prosperity of their new nation on Sunday and kicked off their first soccer match as an independent country after seceding from Sudan’s north on Saturday.

Southerners voted to split in two Africa’s largest nation by area in a January referendum that was the culmination of a 2005 peace deal ending decades of civil war between north and south. Some 2 million people died in the conflict.

The new country faces a raft of challenges as the government tries to build infrastructure and impose its rule across a territory roughly the size of France and awash with guns from the long war.

Sensitive issues yet to be worked out include how the south will pay to transport its oil -- most fields are in the south, but the pipelines and only port are in the north. Oil is the lifeblood of both economies.

“This is not a point of arrival, but a point of departure,” the priest at a large Catholic church in Juba told a congregation spilling on to the dirt lot outside. Most people in South Sudan follow Christian and traditional beliefs.

“Now begins the construction of this nation,” he said.

In a sermon praying for development and success in the new country, the priest appealed to leaders to work to meet the needs of the people and not pursue self-enrichment.

“I am saying even the children have to see themselves as builders of this nation,” he told the churchgoers. “Constantly ask yourself, what can I do to make this a great nation?”

Such challenges have not dampened the enthusiasm of southerners, who marked the secession with hours of dancing and singing under the pounding sun.

On Sunday, thousands packed a stadium to watch their newly formed national soccer team face off against a team from Kenya, chanting, cheering and singing the new national anthem.

“We are feeling great, you know, we’ve got our independence. It has been a long time the northerners have been colonizing us, so today we are free at last,” Emmanuel Josep, 21, said as he stood in line to get into the stadium.

Cars drove by waving the new South Sudan flag, honking their horns.

Inside, people packed the stadium, sitting along the walls in a relaxed and celebratory atmosphere as soldiers stood watch along the pitch. Hastily assembled floodlights stood overhead and southern officials gathered to watch.

“This is the first for us to play as an independent team with another country. This is why we’ve come here to support our players,” said Nile Claudio, 24, who predicted the South Sudanese team would win two-nil.

Additional reporting by Jeremy Clarke; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Peter Cooney