Just the mention of Afghanistan immediately evokes images of war, conflict, Osama Bin Laden and instability. The US led “War on Terror” that began in 2001 appears to have an end in sight. As more allied troops withdraw they are left with the moral responsibility, wanted or not, to leave infrastructure, both economic and social.
Many of the current generation of able-bodied and young population have no concept of peace. War has been a part of their entire lives and with that a lack of security. Playing football has been low on the list of priorities.
However it is still the most popular sport in the nation. Although formed in 1922 the Afghanistan Football Federation did not sanction its first international game until 1941, a 0-0 draw against Iran. 1948 brought a sole appearance at the Olympic Games and subsequent non-existent organisation and a lack of record keeping ensures little is known about a period of almost half a century between 1950 and 2000.
The Soviet War, Civil War and then the Taliban regime kept football firmly in an unconscious state until the Allies ‘liberated’ the country. Football returned officially in 2003 with a virgin 2006 World Cup Qualifying Campaign, albeit it lasting one game and a 13-0 defeat to Turkmenistan, an unceremonious introduction to the game’s biggest prize. Making up for their 50 year hiatus saw appearances in the 2003 and 2005 SAAF (South Asian Football Federation) Gold Cup and the 2006 AFC (Asian Football Federation) Challenge Cup. A sharp improvement in performances has been welcomed since 2010, the pinnacle being a massive achievement of reaching the 2011 SAFF Cup Final losing narrowly to India.
Despite bowing to Palestine at the first round of the 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign the “Lions of Afghanistan” expect to reach the second qualifying round for the 2018 campaign, steady progress being the aim. This will be helped by some welcome investment in recent years; in 2011 the US army funded the construction of an all-weather artificial pitch for the Olympic Stadium in Kabul. Where civilians were once executed now lays a FIFA certified surface that currently serves as the base of the newly formed Women’s international team.
While the nation team creeps forward club football in Afghanistan has taken on an intriguing dimension. Traditionally the game was centred on what was considered the peak of Afghan football, the Kabul Premier League. An incarnation of the original championship born in 1946 and played in just one stadium due to lack of facilities, the competition consists of thirteen teams from the capital. The now defunct Ariana Kabul took the first ten consecutive titles until senior football practically vaporised for forty years. From 1994 to 2002 the memories (and records) are hazy citing only a couple of years where the league season was completed. Ordu Kabul FC largely dominated the last decade winning four consecutive titles from 2004 to 2007 with the 2008 season abandoned due to the escalating conflict. 2009 saw Kabul Bank FC take their first title but once again the league ground to a halt.
Fast forward to 2012 and a year that would see Western World influences shape an unconventional development in Afghan football. The Afghan Premier League was born under the influence and backing of a reality TV show, translated as ‘Green Field.’ Eight teams, one from each region of the country buried the traditional Kabul football monopoly.
The Moju Group, Afghanistan’s largest media company, teamed up with the football association to create an X-Factor style process where budding footballers were voted onto teams by television audiences. The first season was a revelation; Toofan Harirod FC took the first ever APL crown in front of an enthusiastic and high profile government officials providing what could be the spark to the ignite the round-ball game.
With the 2013 season scheduled to run again in September, optimism is high that the format will work in tandem with the national team’s improvement. The majority of the national squad play in the APL with a handful plying their trade in India. Recent call-ups have included players that began the exodus as children when the Allies entered in 2001. Semi-professional and some professional clubs across the United States, Germany, Scandinavia and Holland have Afghan internationals playing regular football with end result of mutual benefit. Furthermore a 2013 domestic Grassroots program aimed at the Afghan regional provinces has gained traction and could be the birthplace of a new generation of footballers that hopefully will be the first in generations to experience a secure and uninterrupted development.