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Bend It Like A Hindukush Eagle: Soccer Fever Grips Afghanistan

The first APL champion: the Toofan Harirod team
The first APL champion: the Toofan Harirod team
Simone Meyer

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.

Rotten bleachers

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.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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