Afghanistan more than making up for lost time with remarkable recent success

Dealing with adversity and a lack of resources is a common thread for teams at the AFC Challenge Cup, none more so than Afghanistan.

MALE, MALDIVES // Dealing with adversity and a lack of resources is a common thread for teams at the AFC Challenge Cup, none more so than Afghanistan.

Stricken with war and financial hardship, the Afghans have had to play catch-up with their peers in Asia after not playing an international fixture from 1984 to 2003. They played their first home friendly in 36 years when Pakistan visited on August 20, 2013.

Far from meekly accepting their lot in life, though, Afghanistan have set about making their own luck and established a platform from which to dream big. They reached their highest Fifa ranking of 122nd in the world in April 2014 and secured the title of South Asian Football Federation (Saff) champions for the first time last year, having lost to hosts India in the 2011 edition.

Afghanistan coach Mohammad Kargar said building the squad who hit those heights and took their country to the semi-finals of this year’s Challenge Cup required seeking out the Afghan diaspora.

“Our first big step was to be champions of Saff. We did a big recruitment project all across the globe, Afghan players in Europe, America. There are all-Afghan tournaments all over the world and that’s where we went recruiting,” Kargar said through midfielder Ahmad Arash Hatifie, who interpreted for the coach.

“We selected players from those tournaments, and after that we held training camps and also saw them first-hand. We understood that at that time, it would be very difficult for us to do this, but for us to reach this goal, this is a step we needed to take. From a financial perspective, we had some difficulties and it’s hard to do such a task, but we made it happen.”

Kargar also credited the establishment of the Afghan Premier League in 2012 with helping further deepen his team’s player pool. Seven of the Afghan squad are domestically based, with nine playing their club football in Germany, four in India and one each in Norway, Thailand and Australia.

Afghan dreams of a first Asian Cup berth were cut short after Tuesday’s 2-0 loss to Palestine at National Stadium in Male. They face the Maldives, who lost 3-2 to the Philippines in the other semi-final, at 8pm UAE time on Thursday in the third-place match.

For all their on-field improvement, Afghanistan have been a frequent topic away from the pitch during the Challenge Cup. Kargar entered the tournament with what was believed to be a three-match touchline ban, only to find out before the Palestine match it was actually four matches. Interim coach Erich Rutemoller, appointed for the group stage as part of a cooperation between the Afghan and German football associations, had planned to leave the Maldives on Tuesday morning but was summoned back for the semi-final.

In addition, a highway accident on the way back from Saturday’s group match against Laos threw Afghanistan’s plans into disarray. According to local media, a motorcyclist cut in front of a van leading the team motorcade on the 14-kilometre link road in Addu City. The van broke sharply, causing the trailing vehicles to hit it from behind. Kargar, Hatifie and several other players and officials were hurt in the crash. Hatifie, Hassan Amin and Mustafa Azadzoy missed the Palestine match, while Belal Arezou, Faisal Sakhizada and Haroon Fakhrudin Amiri played despite their injuries.

“After the incident, some of the guys were a bit in shock,” Kargar said. “A few of our players are injured because of the accident. Looking back at it, had that incident not occurred, the result of yesterday’s match may have been different.”

For now, though, Afghanistan must concern themselves with the Maldives and their talismanic captain Ali Ashfaq, joint-leading scorer in the tournament with three goals. Another capacity crowd of more than 8,000 fans is expected despite the hosts losing their semi-final in dramatic fashion.

Kargar said his players would continue fighting to bring joy to the people of Afghanistan.

“One thing that gave us success was the players’ individual pride and heart. Their morale is very high,” he said. “Even though we’re a war-torn country, the players’ goal was to bring smiles to the faces of the war-stricken people. With this frame of mind, we were able to be champions in South Asia. The players have a very strong love for their country and their people. You could see that in training every day.

“In comparison to many other countries in Asia, we have a very young federation. There’s not much history behind it, but with such a short period of time being together, we were able to become champions. If we were to compare our team to other teams in South Asia, we’re a young child. But we did reach that goal and become champions of South Asia.”

After the Challenge Cup, Afghanistan’s next big step could be a change of address. Kargar said a major goal of the Afghan federation was to leave the Saff and join Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in the Central Asia region. While there is no official tournament for that region, meetings over the move have taken place and a decision could come down as early as the Fifa Congress in June.

pfreelend@thenational.ae

Published: May 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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