AFGHANISTAN – A Country in Love with the Beautiful Game
Afghanistan is a country which throughout its history has been ravaged by invasion and conflict. From Alexander the Great, through to the British in the 1800’s, into modern times with the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the post 9/11 NATO occupation, the country has long been a theatre of war. Set against a backdrop such as this it might be easy to think that football would not survive in such a fragmented society. However, despite struggling against the varying political uncertainties the country has faced, Afghan football has recently had something of a renaissance and has given hope to many of its citizens.
Despite lying dormant for 18 years, the national team was reconvened in 2002 and in the same year competed in the Asian games in South Korea, where they were heavily defeated in all three games that they played. The results were not important though, the fact that there was a team able to play at all was hope in itself and in 2003 the national team recorded its first victory in almost 20 years as it beat Kyrgyzstan 2-1 in an Asian Cup qualifying match
The domestic game has begun to thrive too. There are two main leagues, firstly the Kabul Premier League consisting of twelve teams from Kabul and there is also the Afghani National League which is made up of teams from around the country as a whole.
The players in the leagues have no formal contract; they and the clubs receive expenses for their accommodation and travel. Players from outside Kabul also receive an allowance the equivalent of £6 per day. Money though is not the motivation for the players. Mujtaba Fiaz, who plays for a team in Kabul, sums up how many players feel “I would never have dreamed that it is possible to play in front of such a big crowd who all have smiles on their faces”
Perhaps as a sign of real progress, there is a female league and women are playing matches in stadia where they used to be publicly executed by the Taliban.
Logistically though it’s hard for women to find a place to play. Khalida Popal, captain of a team from Kabul, describes how her team used to practice in the stadium mentioned before, where the Taliban used to execute people. The pitch itself was poor and soon the team was relegated to an area of concrete at one end of the pitch. NATO took pity on them and allowed the team to use a patch of grass within its main headquarters. There is one problem with this – NATO use the same section of grass as a helipad and training sessions are regularly interrupted by Black Hawks having to land and take off, but it is still progress.
In such a conservative society the idea of women playing is not one that is encouraged by all. Some players have received threatening text messages, whilst others have been asked by their own families to stop playing for fear of their own safety. This has not put off women and young girls wanting to play, in 2007 there were 500 female registered football players across Afghanistan.
The most overriding aspect of the women’s game seems to be the determination of the participants to play. Many have spoken of being in fear of the Taliban when they were young. Shamila Kohestani was whipped by the Taliban when she was 14 for not wearing her burqa properly. Kohestani, refused to be cowed by her oppressors, she escaped the whipping that she had that day and hid. She also secretly educated herself at home as girls were not allowed to attend public schools in the Taliban era. However, she is now the captain of the Afghan women’s national team and is seen as a figurehead and inspiration by many Afghan women and girls.
Football is also flourishing amongst the youngest members of Afghan society too. As well as women receiving help from NATO and the national president Hamed Karzai, UNICEF is trying to reach out to Afghan children too. Along refugee camps at the Afghanistan/Tajikistan border, children are increasingly feeling free enough to be able to play. Under the Taliban even small games like kite flying were banned.
There are 5000 children living along the border in four camps. UNICEF organise regular games for them, which are becoming somewhat of an event in the region. The games are spreading by word of mouth and children from as far as Kabul and Kandahar come to play in the organised matches. The children have little in the way of education and many families are expected to make their way home eventually once fighting subsides, but until then football and other sports are keeping the children occupied and active.
The men’s national team is made up of players who are mainly based in the Afghan leagues, but that is beginning to change. Ten of the current squad play in Germany, other players play in the United States, the Middle East as well as other European countries. They entered and against all pre tournament predictions, reached the final of the 2011 South Asian Football Federation Championship, losing out 4-0 to India. Some female players have also begun to make tentative moves to playing or training abroad, though this is more difficult due to conservative attitudes within Afghan society which look down on women traveling alone.
The growth of football will be a long process in a country that is itself struggling to survive and the sport’s development will be a long and tortuous one. The signs are positive though, the men’s team has obvious signs of talent and progression, women are feeling empowered enough to feel that they can play in safety and the next generation of children have a hunger for playing the game. Increasing education and television coverage will help grow the sport and be a positive light for the next generation of Afghans.
The final word is left to the Afghan Olympic Committee president and former goalkeeper Lieutenant General Mohammad Zaher Aghbar; “The place that once was used to execute people during the Taliban and then football played on their blood, is now turned into a peaceful place. Of all the international projects implemented in Afghanistan, this is one of the most popular. It enjoys the support of all Afghans. Sport helps societies get together and it will strengthen our national solidarity.”