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When South Sudan’s national men’s soccer team won its first ever international match in 2015, the team wasn’t dressed in Nike or Adidas or any of the other major international sportswear companies. Instead, uniforms for the world’s youngest nation, ranked at No. 153 internationally and occupying a Texas-sized corner of eastern Africa between Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were made by a small company created by an Australian college student called AMS Clothing.
South Sudan isn’t alone. Increasingly, small underdog soccer teams across Africa — and soccer jersey collectors around the world — are finding a partner in AMS, which operates with just a handful of staff on the other side of the planet. Founded in 2014, the company currently provides uniforms for between six and 10 African national soccer teams, depending on how you count (more on that in a moment).
AMS also equips most of the club teams in South Sudan and has produced symbolic prototypes for a handful of quasi-states and separatist regions across the continent, including the English-speaking region of Cameroon and Puntland, in Somalia’s northeast corner.
For residents of some of the world’s most underdeveloped and traumatized countries, the company has quite literally created a national symbol for people to unify around. “We just want to support football in as many regions as possible,” says Luke Westcott, AMS’s 23-year-old managing director and founder, who is now finishing up his final year at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
When he started producing uniforms, Westcott was 19 and had built a small business reselling obscure and unique soccer jerseys to the niche community of collectors around the world. “It got to a point eventually where people kept asking for certain teams that I just couldn’t get from other brands,” he says. In particular, buyers wanted uniforms from South Sudan and the authoritarian hermit state of Eritrea, whose soccer players have repeatedly used the team as a way to defect. “I just thought maybe if I could start my own brand and supply these teams myself, then I’d able to get those jerseys into the market.”
What started as a supplier of collector memorabilia has morphed into a manufacturer of patriotic symbolism for a handful of African nations. Two years after South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the country descended into a brutal civil war that has split the population along ethnic lines. The fighting has taken tens of thousands of lives and sent 4 million people fleeing from their homes. Gunmen on both sides may have committed war crimes, monitors allege.
But soccer remains one of the few things that can bring the country together.
“Our team consists of all tribes and languages across the country,” Duach Jock, 30, a national team player who now lives in the US, says via Facebook message. “With the ongoing civil war right now football is the key and the outlet for many players and fans alike. When the national team plays in [the capital,] Juba, the whole city comes out to support!”
For Benard Agele, 24, a midfielder who has played several games with South Sudan’s national team, seeing Juba Stadium full with fans “is always a joy and motivation.” It gives “the suffering people a reason to smile,” he says via Facebook message. The uniforms, featuring the distinctive star and colors of the country’s flag, are a particular source of pride, Agele adds. “I feel very proud whenever I wear the national team colours… I personally think we have the best jerseys.”
Sports teams are a focus of national pride and identity the world over, but in few places has soccer been used as a symbol as intentionally as in former colonies across Africa. Especially as anticolonial sentiment peaked following World War II, soccer teams were one of the most reliable ways of unifying Africans together against European rulers.
Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, created Zik’s Athletic Club in Lagos 22 years before independence, and used the team to tour the country and spread an anti-colonial message. In Algeria in the late 1950s, colonized players abandoned French club teams to join the squad of the pro-independence National Liberation Front (FLN). A half-century earlier, a young lawyer in South Africa named Mohandas Gandhi created three Passive Resisters Soccer Clubs that served as early megaphones for his strategy of nonviolent resistance, decades before leading major protests against the British in India. Ghana’s nationalist icon Kwame Nkrumah drew an explicit connection between soccer and his political struggle to encourage the fight against colonialism as well as to foster a pan-African cooperation. “Through international competitions with other African states, sports can provide that necessary basis of mutual understanding which can so greatly assist the realization of our ideal of unity in Africa,” he claimed in a speech at the opening of a stadium in Kumasi in 1960.
Amid recent crises, soccer teams have at times been pivotal in bringing countries together. As Ebola ravaged Sierra Leone three years ago, the national team’s players faced discrimination and stigmatization when they played internationally. But watching the team became a form of “escapism” for the country, says Zora Saskova, a doctoral researcher at Ulster University in Northern Ireland who has studied the issue. “Football is really good for creating national identity or connecting people because there’s so much passion and everybody can play.” The uniforms at the time? Bright blue with a horizontal graphic pattern, produced by AMS.
Yet nations and soccer teams don’t always overlap with recognized political borders. There are, for instance, 211 members of FIFA, the international soccer body, but only 193 member states in the United Nations. American Samoa, Palestine, Wales, Hong Kong, and other nations all have national soccer teams but not a chair at the UN. Following Catalonia’s recent efforts to secede from Spain, the ultra-popular team FC Barcelona has taken sides against the national government in Madrid and in October played a game in an empty stadium out of protest.
AMS Clothing has waded into this thicket. In addition to providing uniforms for established nations such as South Sudan and Sierra Leone, the company produces jerseys for Western Sahara, a disputed state on the continent’s northwest coast frequently known as “Africa’s last colony.” Morocco claims control of the territory, a former Spanish possession, but independence fighters reject that authority and demand the country be known as the independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Western Sahara is a member of the continental African Union but not of the United Nations, which calls it a “non-self-governing territory” on par with American Samoa or the US Virgin Islands.
Yet it has a national soccer team — sort of. The team, based in a refugee camp in neighboring Algeria, isn’t a member of FIFA, but instead plays as part of an association of outcast teams, called the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, or CONIFA. AMS received some criticism on social media for equipping the team, but Westcott denies that it has ever tried to make a political statement. “We try to stay out of the political stuff as much as we can,” he said. “By that region [Western Sahara] having a national team, it really gives a lot of pride and hope for the people there and just something for them to cheer about, which is just a positive thing no matter what political viewpoint you have.”
Other jerseys might be more provocative. In addition to its official gear, AMS Clothing sells six “prototypes” marketed toward collectors but not used to equip any actual soccer teams. They began with a collector’s request for a jersey representing the southeastern Nigerian region of Biafra and expanded to include Nigeria’s Ogoniland, the disputed Abyei region of Sudan, Somalia’s Puntland, the exclave Cabinda region of Angola and Southern Cameroons.
In some of those areas, separatist sentiments have led to bitter violence. Roughly 1 million people died during the humanitarian crisis of Biafra’s failed war of independence in the late 1960s, a conflict vividly depicted in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award-winning Half of a Yellow Sun. A recent resurgence of separatist sentiments has led to a renewed military crackdown by the central government. In bilingual Cameroon, more than a dozen people have been killed in Anglophone protests against the French-speaking government.
Because the shirts that AMS produces are prototypes, Westcott says, “I don’t think it’s too noticed and it doesn’t have too much of an impact.
“If we saw that it might have a negative impact if we were to support particular independence movements, then we wouldn’t do it. But if it gave the people of that nation some pride or hope in their country, then it’s definitely something that we would want to do.”
For the time being, AMS’s focus is on South Sudan and dominating the domestic market. “Seeing as South Sudan’s probably one of the world’s hardest places to do business, any single challenge that we could possible face in any market in Africa can be found there,” Westcott says. “So once we can be successful there we can start expanding into other markets.” It’s also always looking for new countries to equip, and at the moment has its eye on the Somalia national team.
AMS “have done more than just provide us with uniforms,” says Jock, the South Sudanese player now in the US. “Luke Westcott [has] became a good friend and mentor to many. He is paving the way for African football gears.”
“I look forward to when AMS clothing will be the sponsor for most of African teams and beyond.”