Afghan football is back on its feet

August 7th, 2008 - 6:26 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Taliban
By Abhishek Roy
Hyderabad, Aug 7 (IANS) Smiles on the faces of Afghan footballers say it all, that the dark, grisly days of the Taliban rule are mercifully behind them. Life for them is now beautiful and meaningful. The sport-loving nation is back on its feet to bend the ball. The young Afghanistan side has certainly created a flutter in the AFC Challenge cup football here.

They might have failed to cross the group stage in the eight-nation tournament here, but they showed enough potential to emerge as a force to reckon with in the sub-continent. There were glimpses of their newfound enthusiasm and energy at the SAFF Championships two months ago.

Football, like many sports, was discouraged when the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001, though the Afghanistan were cut off from international soccer much earlier, between 1984 and 2003. They attempted to qualify for the Olympics just twice since 1948, and have only participated in World Cup qualifying since Germany 2006.

But the success of the national under-14 team has spurred interest in the game. The team won a bronze in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-14 Festival of Football in Tehran. Thanks to some help from the German Football Federation (DFB), there is a ray of hope. The DFB is running camps in three schools in Kabul.

And with limited resources and some foreign-based players, who fled the country during the Taliban regime, football has already made some headway since the national team’s formation in 2003.

“Our start didn’t go right. After forming the team we went to play some practice matches in Italy in 2003 and there nine of the players escaped. It was a shameful incident for us. But then the players who escaped had no other choice because there was nothing left in the country. The Taliban destroyed everything,” chief coach Mohammad Yusuf Kargar told IANS.

It took another year for Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) to form a national team.

“During the 1960s and the 70s we had a respectable team and also had a football tradition in the country. Problems started after the Soviet invasion and since then nothing went right for us. This is a fresh start for us and I hope everything goes right,” said Kargar, who led the national team for 13 years in the 80s.

This time the national team was selected after a tournament involving 16 provinces.

“Life is very difficult in Afghanistan and football is a luxury for people. But we play just for the sheer love of the game. There is just one ground in Kabul and that is the best ground in the country. The Taliban destroyed all the grounds,” Kargar added.

The players are upbeat about the new start and feel that things are improving but at a very slow pace.

“For professional footballers like us, it is very important to have a secured life. But only few among us in the national team have jobs,” said goalkeeper Shamshuddin Amiri, who plays for Kabul Bank and is also employed with the financial institution.

Amiri, like other Afghans, fled to Pakistan during the Taliban era and played for Pakistan Television (PTV) in Rawalpindi.

“My family came back in 2003 and I was selected for the under-19 national team. Life is tough but when the going gets tough the tough get going,” he added.

Amiri’s teammate Zohib Islam, who also plays for Kabul Bank, said FIFA was not doing enough to promote the game in the country.

“We get the usual $250,000 annual funding from FIFA. It is not enough for us because we don’t have any infrastructure. The league, which is in place for two years, is played only in one stadium. There is a lot of talent and to promote it we need money. The AFF doesn’t have enough money to take care of the under-14 team, which is the future of Afghanistan football,” said Islam.

They may be languishing but the important thing is that Afghanistan is ready to participate and football is certainly not down. But it is going to be a long and a hard way for them.

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