KABUL - There was a day when executions took place in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium, and until 11 years ago it was a place where the Taliban punished renegades with public amputations. But for the past few weeks all you could hear in this part of the Afghan capital was the sound of chatter, dancing, celebration – and soccer being played.
The Afghanistan Football Federation Stadium is only a few hundred meters away from the Ghazi Stadium, and it is where the Afghan Premier League (APL) held the country’s first fully professional competition in September and October. Thousands of spectators followed the games on TV, on the radio, and of course in the stadium itself. "The atmosphere was unique," says Shafic Gawhari, 51, the league’s manager. "People are hungry for entertainment."
Soccer offers some diversion from the daily reality of war, and contributes to peace in the country, says Saranwal Ikram, the president of the Afghan Football Federation (AFF). To achieve peace and stability, focus should not only be on training the armed forces, he says – sport is the best instrument to bring about peace.
Afghanistan’s first professional soccer league is comprised of eight teams from eight regions of the country. The teams have poetic names such as the Hindukush Eagles, Falcon of Asmayee, and Alborz Swans, and they have become known all over the country. This is partially due to the way some of the players were selected: on a TV reality show called Maidan e-Sabz ("The Green Field") that started in early July and was a kind of “Afghanistan’s Next Top Soccer Player.” Viewers could call or send an SMS to vote for players they deemed had done best on a series of physical and mental tests. Three of the 21 players on each team were selected this way.
The transparent selection process was well received in a country where corruption and nepotism are rampant. "We managed not to accept a single player with ties to influential people," says manager Gawhari. "We resisted all outside pressure." Over 20,000 men applied for places on the teams.
There has never been such soccer fever in Afghanistan -- even if soccer has been the number one sport in the country since the 1970s. The Islamic republic has had its own soccer federation since 1933, but the sport declined in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989. Under the Taliban, soccer was one of the few sports allowed -- "of course only for men," Gawhari says, "and they had to have beards and wear long pants and have their head covered."
Gawhari says it was particularly difficult to find new young talent in this war-torn nation with few soccer clubs. "We had no idea where to look." And it’s also the reason for the relative lack of success of the Afghan national team. Presently, the team occupies the 166th place in the FIFA rankings.
The professional league has now provided a new talent pool. The idea originally came from Afghanistan’s largest media company, the Moby Group, which signed a 10-year cooperation agreement with the AFF. The main sponsors are Roshan, a mobile phone provider, the AIB Bank, and Hummel, a Danish sports apparel company. All say they are committed to supporting the league for at least three years. "Interest from the private sector is growing," Gawhari says. "We can count on getting more sponsors."
Plans for 2013 have already been made: in the spring, there will be smaller competitions and friendlies -- and not just in Kabul, but also in the provinces. "After all, families want to see their favorite stars live."
As for the rest of the year, the weather and infrastructure place certain limitations. Winter is too cold, and summer is too hot, to play soccer. That leaves April, May, September and October. The state of the stadiums is also an issue: bleachers have rotted through, toilets are out of commission, and there are no emergency exits. Some regions don’t even have a pitch. And it would take too long for the teams to travel by road from Kandahar to Kunduz -- many roads aren’t even paved.
And then there is also the permanent danger of attacks. "We want to promote peaceful coexistence among the various tribes in this country through soccer," says Gawhari, who for nine years has worked for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (German Society for International Cooperation) known as GIZ. To be able to devote his full attention to the soccer project he has taken a year off work – he’ll still be doing development work, just without German government subsidy, he says. "Some of our Afghan politicians may still have a problem with national identity," he says, "but young people don’t have that problem."
And young people make up over half the population. An important aspect of Gawhari's job, as he sees it, is helping to promote values like tolerance, respect and patience in Afghanistan’s young. The players, who are on average 22 years old, mostly spent their childhoods in refugee camps or in the war. Now they are role models for the whole country.
"I’ve made it clear to the boys that everything they do is now seen nationally, because all the games are broadcast live on TV," the league manager says. After four weeks on the job he says he’s amazed to see the players sticking to the rules so diligently. "Sure they can get angry at some referee decision, but they swallow their anger and refrain from insulting the referee," he says. "And the losing teams congratulate the winners. That might be normal in Western countries, but here it’s unusual."
Equally unusual was the program on October 19, the last day of the soccer season: it featured a women’s soccer game, and a game between members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and local police.