CAMPED deep in the bowels of the heaving Stade du 26-Mars in the Malian capital Bamako, Friday Zico had a few precious moments to reflect on just how far soccer had taken him.
Born to Sudanese refugees forced to flee south during the civil war, Zico spent the first 10 years of his life in a village near the northern Ugandan city of Gulu.
The fighting spilled over the border when Zico was seven, and he has vivid memories from that time he would rather forget.
“The rebels would attack villages where refugees were hiding and we got caught up in that,” he said.
“For a good three years it became such a normal thing to see people getting shot. There were nights we would be running through bullets.”
Zico’s family immigrated to Perth in 2004 and it was here that he experienced organised soccer for the first time.
“I started playing seriously when I was about 11 – before that I had played a bit of street soccer but we didn’t have any proper fields or equipment,” he said.
What Zico lacked in formal training he made up for in talent and the winger spent his junior years playing above his age group, first at Fremantle United and then with Melville City.
From there he moved to the Football West National Training Centre, under the tutelage of current Perth Glory coach Kenny Lowe, where he was selected for the Australian Schoolboys tour of the United Kingdom.
A donation from Melville City Football Club helped send Zico abroad where he impressed in a successful campaign comprising six wins and four draws.
He then twice returned to England to train and play trial matches against professional clubs but visa issues prevented him from signing youth contracts with the likes of Charlton Athletic, Ipswich and most galling of all, Manchester United.
“I played in a game against Fleetwood United and there was a Manchester United scout watching,” Zico said.
“The next day they were asking about me at training and from then on they watched me for a good three months.
“After another trial game on the final day of preseason they came to see me and started asking me if I had a grandparent or relative from the UK and I knew they were getting to the word visa again.
“The guy representing me told me that if I had a working visa I could have been playing for Manchester United against Everton in the Under-21s later that month.”
Crushed, Zico returned to Perth and, after receiving the call up from newly minted independent nation South Sudan, his roots.
“South Sudan has an agent who works in Australia and he thought I was good enough and wanted me to go over for a training camp ahead of the (Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations) Cup,” Zico said.
“This was at the end of 2014 but then civil war broke out again and we didn’t get to go.
“Then 2015 came along and the qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations and there were reports that war was about to break out again but we didn’t care about that, we just wanted to go play football and represent South Sudan.”
After debuting off the bench in a 2-0 loss to Kenya, Zico found himself in Bamako preparing for his first international start against African powerhouse Mali.
“Mali is a top five team in Africa boasting all European-based players; English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, French Ligue 1 – the best,” Zico said.
“There were 60,000 people filling the stadium and when I say I was nervous, I mean very, very nervous.
“When you’re in the change room under the stadium you can feel it pumping and we hadn’t even warmed up yet.”
Adding to Zico’s apprehension were media predictions of a 10-0 Mali whitewash against a young and untested South Sudan.
“We lost 2-0 but it was a good loss,” Zico said.
“Pretty much all of Africa had written us off and said we were going to get pumped but we went there with the intention of actually winning the game.
“We had some really good chances to score against them but we were lacking experience and really missed those one or two leaders that can pick the young players up throughout the game.”
A torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in September last year will prevent Zico from pulling on the South Sudanese shirt again until the second half of 2016 but after so many setbacks and disappointments the 20-year-old is prepared to bide his time.
“I’ve been there now and rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in football,” he said.
“If it wasn’t for this injury I would be preparing to play for my country again. All I can do is wait.”