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Thriving in the face of adversity

After the Soviet invasion and under Taliban rule, football all but vanished in Afghanistan, but it is back and gathering a huge following in the process, writes Ahmed Rizvi.
Afghan youths play football next to the Ghazi stadium in Kabul on February 15, 2014. AFP
Afghan youths play football next to the Ghazi stadium in Kabul on February 15, 2014. AFP

The National’s sports writers look at some of the unlikely sporting success stories going on in the world. Be it a flourishing where you would not expect it, or an athlete overcoming great challenges to take part, we will be telling their stories.

During the past decade, if you spoke about football in Afghanistan, the first image that came to mind, tragically, was of a woman, clad in a light-blue burqa and kneeling down at the edge of the box, facing the goal and unaware of the automatic rifle held at the back of her head.

A few moments later, Zarmeena, a mother of seven, had slumped to the ground, lifeless after being shot. More than 30,000 people watched in stunned silence.

The tattered and bullet-riddled stands of the Ghazi Stadium, built by King Amanullah Khan in 1923, must have cringed in shame, but this was 1999 and such horrible episodes were a weekly, if not a daily, occurrence.

The once-proud stadium was the venue of choice for the Taliban as they punished anyone they deemed guilty of breaking their laws and the residents of Kabul were forced to watch.

“Its pitch, they said, was so blood-soaked that grass would not grow,” a Reuters report on the re-inauguration of the Ghazi Stadium in 2011 started with these words.

Occasionally, football was played on that dry, sallow turf, but under strict Taliban guidelines.

Kate Clark, the BBC’s Kabul correspondent from 1999 to 2002, witnessed one such match, “the only woman among 19,999 men who packed out Kabul’s stadium”.

“There were rumours when the Taliban first came to Kabul that they would even stop people playing football,” she said in her report, which was broadcast by the BBC on August 2000. “But after a few nervous months, matches started up again. The league is amateur, thriving and wildly popular. It attracts crowds that most first division teams in Britain would die for – but this is one of the few legal fun activities.”

Football was allowed, but not without conditions. Play had to be stopped at the time of prayers and all the fans, players and officials were herded onto the pitch to perform the prayers.

Of course, there were regulations on what the players could wear: shorts were strictly forbidden.

Thomas Ruttig, who worked for the two UN missions in Afghanistan between 2000 and 2006, also watched one of the football matches in Kabul and wrote about “funnily clad players on a brownish-green pitch, in front of war-damaged stands with bullet-riddled walls and steaming samovars”.

“Wide patluns [traditional Pashtun trousers] legs peep out under colourful football shorts, looking oddly enough,” Ruttig wrote in a dispatch for the Afghan Analysts Network in June 2000. “Since the players also need to cover their hair, they have to wear skull caps, too.”

A visiting Pakistani football team learnt that lesson the hard way. They were in Kandahar to play a series of matches, but the tour was cut short when Taliban authorities interrupted their match and arrested 12 of the visiting players for wearing shorts.

Five players managed to escape, but those caught had their heads shaved as punishment.

Despite the restrictions, the Afghan’s enthusiasm for football was not diminished.

“Afghans all over the place were kicking the round leather again, even in the Taliban’s stronghold Kandahar, opposite Mulla Omar’s headquarters, where the pitch is so dusty that you have to wait for the dust to settle down after a particularly brazen attack,” Ruttig wrote.

The Afghan’s love of football was simply too deep-rooted. The Afghanistan Football Association was formed in 1922 and the nation played their first international against Iran, a 0-0 draw, in 1941.

In 1948, they were affiliated to Fifa and the Afghan national team made their only appearance at the Olympics, losing 6-0 to Luxembourg. Six years later, Afghanistan were one of the founding members of the Asian Football Confederation.

With the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the ensuing civil war, football, like every other activity, came to a virtual standstill.

Afghanistan were absent from the international stage from 1984 until the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002.

Their last international in the pre-Taliban era was the 1984 Asian Cup qualifier against Hong Kong.

Their next international assignment was the 2002 Busan Asian Games, and the results in South Korea showed the damage that Afghanistan football had suffered in those two decades of war. The Afghans lost 10-0 to Iran in their opening game, but that was their best result in three matches. Qatar and Lebanon scored 11 each against them, without reply.

Eleven years later, the team came home to a hero’s welcome. They had stunned six-time champions India 2-0 in Nepal to win the South Asian Football Federation Championships.

President Hamid Karzai, cabinet ministers and members of parliament flooded Kabul airport’s VIP lounge to receive the champions.

Crowds lined the streets to welcome the team and about 40,000 packed into a refurbished Ghazi Stadium to cheer their heroes.

“After the final we were sitting in the hotel and saw what was happening back home,” goalkeeper Mansur Faqiryar told Fifa.com.

Faqiryar is based in Germany and was the player of the tournament after he saved two penalties in the semi-finals against hosts Nepal.

“Watching all the people dancing out in the streets was the first real ‘wow’ moment. It’s a real football fairy tale. You couldn’t script it better if it was a Hollywood movie,” he said.

As with every fairy tale, there are more than a few characters here. There is the Moby group, which played a big part in Afghanistan’s football resurgence through their establishment and promotion of the Afghan Premier League in 2012.

Fifa played a big part, too, through their Goal Project, investing US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) in the construction of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) headquarters and the installation of a pitch at the complex.

They will also help in the construction of a futsal hall and beach soccer arena.

The most important ingredient, though, has been the resilience of the Afghan people, as coach Mohammed Yousuf Kargar pointed out.

“Nothing can serve you better than your own willpower,” Kargar said last year. “So it’s our strong morale that has won our team major successes in international matches.

“If we compare ourselves with regional and international teams in terms of facilities, we have just five per cent facilities. But despite that we have been advancing well.

“We came across a number of challenges during the past decade, but what we have today in the field of football is no less than a miracle.”

Indeed, in January, 2003, the team were ranked No 204 in the world by Fifa. In April this year, they had climbed to No 122. Most of that success has come during the past 12 months – in February, 2013, Afghanistan were ranked No 189.

In 2006, according to Fifa’s Big Count, the country had 19,781 players registered officially. That number has risen to more than 54,000.

There are 224 women and girls registered with the AFF in Kabul, and 16 clubs in the Afghan capital have opened their doors to females.

Afghanistan’s success in promoting football was recognised by the AFF winning the 2013 Fifa Fair Play Award.

To further improve their standards, this June the AFF decided to leave the South Asian Football Federation and join the Central Asian Football Federation, where teams such as Iran and Uzbekistan will give them a much stiffer test. They have raised the bar, but their dreams are higher.

“The smooth running of the league and the victory of our national team in the SAFF Cup in September have sparked football euphoria in our country,” Sayed Aghazada, the AFF secretary general, told Fifa.com.

“If we keep on working the same way, I am confident we can qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.”

arizvi@thenational.ae

Follow us on twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Updated: August 2, 2014 04:00 AM

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