How one challenge developed into a proud network of support for the many players
There are more than 80,000 Afghan soccer players and 270 sports clubs across the country. But not all of them were performing so well. A few years ago, the country’s men’s and women’s national soccer teams were a blight on the sporting landscape, struggling with bomb attacks and insurgent attacks that reduced the length of their season and hindered team performance, even within the same regions.
So a ragtag group of authorities and volunteers, motivated by patriotism, joined hands to create the hope of a better future. They collected jerseys and other equipment, once worn by soccer players, and redistributed them in the most dire of circumstances. They hoped to draw members of those teams into a new endeavor.
“I found the old uniforms that were burned and torn,” says Ahmad Shah Riaz, secretary of the Afghan Football Federation. “They were worn by national players in the early 80s.” His goal was to help revive the sport across Afghanistan. But the journey wasn’t easy. “At first the problem was, what if they lost the shirts they had when they played?” says Daniel, an Austrian soccer player on the team. “I didn’t want to wear them so I wasn’t bothered. But I couldn’t put them on. I saw that some of the others on the team were unhappy.” At first, the Swedish coach, Vincent Nelk, wore one of the jerseys he’d collected but declined to tell his players. “We did it as a family,” explains Shah. “We did it for Afghanistan. We didn’t want the players to get punished, because people [in Afghanistan] aren’t concerned about football.”
As volunteers, this lot first worked for themselves. “I did some of the marketing for the game,” says Edson, a former Afghan player. “I’m doing some of the driving for the cars we buy.” Many of them got into the business themselves by finding ways to help themselves. “We got training here in Austria,” says Edson. “I trained at a personal track. I’ve gone to the weight room. I drove cars for the group. I gave them some experience of dealing with money. I really want to improve the image of the Afghan national team by doing more things.”
But now, as their efforts take shape, they’re seeing real results. Almost all the national team’s players are playing in the countries of former eastern Soviet republics, and many are set to compete in the Asian Cup. There are so many athletes from one national group in particular that it could make the name of one nation, according to Nelk, the coach of the Swedish team.
“We are 100 percent Afghanistan and Afghan soccer,” he says. “We are all Afghan people. I want the other nationalities to join us in it. The more the merrier.”
At its peak, the population of Afghanistan is likely to be around 36 million, so even with six times as many people, this may not seem like a very sustainable scenario. But the possibility remains that for the first time in three decades, Afghan soccer could be the national sport. And in today’s Afghanistan, that means nearly a million people taking to the pitch in the months ahead. “I want our fans to be proud of Afghan football again,” says Shah. “I want them to love us for good.”