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09/10/2013

Afghan soccer a rare good-news story for battle-scarred country

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Afghan football players from Tofaan Harirod (BLUE/R) and Spinghar Bazan (GREEN/L) fight for the ball during game of the Roshan Afghan premiere league at the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) stadium in Kabul on August 22, 2013. SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, halftime shows during soccer games at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul featured public executions, criminals hanged from goalposts, and thieves having their hands cut off.

Point is, the bar was set low for the inaugural year of the Afghan Premier League, the world’s newest and perhaps most important soccer league.

The league played its first season last year between September and October. Games were uneventful, which means there were no marauding gunmen attacking games or suicide bombers. Now, the league has kicked off its second season with measured expectations. After all, the league isn’t England’s premiership.

As many as eight players share bedrooms, according to a report by Agence France Presse journalist Ben Shephard. They are paid $9 a day.

“We are here all together, eating and living and sleeping in the same place. It is great fun,” Emal Mangal, a 19-year-old striker and third-year medical student told Shephard.

According to the AFP report, the league is split into eight teams covering the whole country “to give all Afghans a side to support, and it hopes to promote better ethnic ties after decades of warfare and conflict.”

Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the heartland of a 12-year Taliban insurgency, are represented by De Maiwand Atalan — the “Heroes of Maiwand,” named after the 1880 Afghan battlefield victory over the British.

The league is the brainchild of Saad Mohseni, who runs Roshan Media, Afghanistan’s largest cell phone company. Mohseni believed his country desperately needed a symbol of inspiration for its youth. Afghanistan has been steeped in violence for decades.

All games are held in the 6,000-capacity Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) stadium, an artificial pitch funded by the FIFA world governing body.

Interest in football seems to be on the rise. Tolo TV said it drew an audience of 12 million for Afghanistan’s recent 3-0 home victory over Pakistan.

“We are here all together, eating and living and sleeping in the same place. It is great fun,” said Mangal, a third-year medical student standing outside his dormitory after morning training.

Interestingly, Mohseni told me before last season that he had hired an American to guide his league’s growth. Chris McDonald, 48, from New York, was a sales executive with ESPN Star Sports in the Philippines and Hong Kong previously.

McDonald set about landing sponsors, and was in charge of finding a way to recruit players.

“This league is so important because it provides something for the young people of this country to strive for, it gives them a chance to have their own idols and heroes within Afghanistan,” McDonald told me. “It’s hard for a Canadian to understand but they just haven’t grown up with that. It also is a way to bring together all the different tribes and ethnicities of Afghanistan. And it creates a lot of jobs.”

In time it may do more than that. McDonald says he hopes the league eventually evolves to the point where he can form a parallel women’s league.

Afghan companies are already won over with the plan.

Roshan, the media company, was an easy sell as the title sponsor. But other companies have also signed on. The Afghan National Bank is a major sponsor. So is Hamel, a large apparel company, which is providing uniforms and shoes for players. Khanair, a regional airline, is also a sponsor.

The selection of players was interesting in itself. During July and August, Roshan’s TV network showed a 19-episode reality TV show called “Green Field.” It moved from region to region across the country. In each region, it would whittle down interested players, and then allow viewers to help choose several players.

For instance, in Kabul, 2,500 players registered for the show. 1,200 showed up. Judges, a group of former soccer coaches, whittled that number down to 30. Then, over several shows, That figure was whittled down to 21. Then down to 15 based on a series of mental and physical tests. Six remaining players were voted on by the viewing audience, which selected three players for the local team, giving each team 18 players.

Games are broadcast live on TV andon  two radio networks Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. A pre-game show airs before each game at 3 p.m. The games begin at 3:30 p.m. and then there is a post-game show.

The players themselves offer amazing stories.

Former Taliban now practicing corner kicks?

“All that and more, you won’t be able to believe the stories you’ll hear from these players,” McDonald says.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

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