Afghan footballers defy war to embrace beautiful game
Afghanistan's football season kicked off on Thursday, with the country's chronic instability giving the beautiful game a slightly different look to most other nations.
In a country where the Taliban once used football stadiums as grisly theaters for public executions, thousands of young soccer-mad Afghans are getting ready to follow the Roshan Afghan Premier League (APL).
Unlike many other leagues, Afghanistan's only runs for six weeks and the eight teams taking part will eschew home-and-away fixtures, playing matches in Kabul, the capital, instead.
APL organizers, who have been running the league since 2012, want to show a vibrant side to the country in clear contrast to its more prominent image as a poor, war-torn nation.
Thursday's opening ceremony in Kabul was, by the country's standards, and taking into consideration serious security concerns, colorful and energetic.
After decades of war and destruction, Afghanistan's limited and localized stability has helped restore some sports facilities and encouraged its youth to take up the game.
For sports lovers, the league provides a pleasant and healthy escape from the otherwise bitter and harsh realities of everyday life.
Murtaza Chakarzai, goalkeeper for last year's league runners-up De Maiwand Attalan -- which represents the restive southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Zabul and Uruzgan -- is optimistic about lifting the trophy this time round.
"God willing! Our team is much better and more organized than last year," he told Anadolu Agency in Kabul.
- FOOTBALL CRAZE
"My first desire and dream is to see peace prevail in the country so that we can play in peace and comfort… Later, I wish to go on and play with clubs overseas," the young footballer said.
Most of his teammates from unstable parts of the country find comfort on the football pitch from the troubles caused by the insurgency and poverty.
The selection of players for the eight APL teams was completed last month. Sides are named after the iconic geographical features of the parts of the country they represent.
They include: Oqaban Hindukosh (Eagles of Hindukosh), the De Abasin Sape (Waves of the Indus), Shaheen Asmayee (Asmayee Falcon), Spinghar Bazan (Eagles of the White Mountain), De Maiwand Attalan (Victors of the Maiwand), Mawjhai Amu (Waves of Amu), Simorgh Alburz (Alburz Phoenix) and Toofan Harirod (Storm of Harirod).
The football craze is on the rise in Afghanistan and there is huge fan following for iconic stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and many more.
Afghanistan's own league is just what these diehard football lovers wanted.
Shah Wali Hotak plays in defense for Kandahar, and is a big admirer of Ronaldo. He wants the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) to expand the sphere of the league to give more emerging players a chance to enter the main arena.
An overwhelming majority of Afghanistan's national team are foreign-based players who signed for clubs in Europe, India, Malaysia and Iran. This is something which irks many at home.
Jamil Ahmad Amiri, a Kandahar-based footballer is one of them. He argues Afghans based in Europe and the U.S. are less emotionally linked to the country and hence the team is "too politicized and divided".
"They come from abroad and leave immediately after playing international matches. Not many people in the country know them. The football federation should organize more and more leagues to nurture local talent for the national team," he said.
Afghanistan's national team is struggling in the 2019 Asian Football Championship (AFC) qualifying matches following a humiliating 4-1 away defeat against Jordan on Tuesday.
Currently bottom of Group C, Afghanistan drew 1-1 against Vietnam in March and lost to Cambodia prior to the defeat against Jordan.
The Afghans now need to win all three remaining matches to qualify for the AFC. Many followers blame the foreign-based players for this poor run of results.
Faiz Mohammad Faizy, a former member of the national team, agrees problems exist in the AFF that need to be urgently tackled.
"We are sportsmen, and we do not want to talk a lot about the off-field situation, but it is unfortunate to see no fundamental improvement or measures for the improvement of football in the country except for the premier league, which is like a short film that shows-up only once a year," he said.
He said he lost his job because of a long absence due to premier league duties, but no one came to his rescue.
"I would not encourage anyone to pursue football as career because there is no future in it. Sports like cricket and free fighting [mixed martial arts] have brought fame to the country, and all sports federations should be kept away from politics and corruption," he stressed.
Yosuf Kargar, deputy president of the AFF, promised during a news conference two days before the last match that local players with exceptional skills would be considered for the national team.