John Duerden on the Afghan national team who, only ten years after their reformation, nearly won their first international trophy
Comedian Jasper Carrott used to joke that he grew up thinking his favourite team as a child were actually called "Birmingham City-nil". Kids these days could be forgiven for thinking that the adjective "war-torn" was permanently attached to Afghanistan. Yet, for a few short days in December, the nation's football team was making different kinds of headlines.
This was a team that had won fewer than ten games in its entire history and had never progressed past the group stage of the South Asian Football Federation Championship. Yet the Lions nearly won the 2011 version of the eight-nation biennial tournament.
They started with a creditable draw against India, the hosts, in Delhi. Then came an impressive 3-1 win over Sri Lanka. A win over Bhutan would have been enough for a semi-final spot, but an 8-1 thrashing gave Afghanistan top spot in the group.
It should have been a time of rare celebration of the best results in the nation's football history – not much competition there, admittedly – but it was overshadowed by tragedy at home. Just hours before the Bhutan match, a bomb exploded in Kabul, killing more than 50 people, including four family members of midfielder Mustafa Madar. "We were so happy when we came here but on hearing this sad news, I just cannot stop crying. I have to control myself as we have a chance in this tournament," Madar said.
The incident helped bring together what was a fairly disparate group of players. Of the 20-man squad, eight play overseas – some had left the country, some were sons of those who left in the past. Now they can be found all over the world: in amateur leagues in the United States, the German lower leagues, in India and in Cyprus.
Their best known player is the star striker Balal Arezou, who plays for Asker Fotball in Norway's third tier. The 23-year-old finished as the tournament's second top scorer, with six goals. His most important strike came in the semi-final, the only goal in 120 minutes of football against a Nepali team led by former Spurs defender Graham Roberts. The Nepalese were favourites going into the game but they did not take their chances. Arezou scored in the 101st minute to put Afghanistan in the final against India.
The final was something of an anti-climax. After 64 minutes of stalemate, the Afghanistan goalkeeper Hamidullah Yousufzai was sent off for over-enthusiastically protesting a penalty that had just been given to India. A goal and a man down, the Afghans chased the game and ended up losing, harshly, 4-0. Head coach Mohammad Yousef Kargar was angry: "It was not a penalty and neither was it a red card. The referee cost us the game. His poor judgement killed the match and the tournament."
Given time to reflect, perhaps Kargar will realise that the memory of the tournament will live long for Afghanistan. From 1984 to 2001, as the Soviet Union and then the Taliban ruled the country, there was no international football at all and yet his team was close to taking one of the major prizes on the Asian scene.
There was an even more meaningful celebration just the following week. The Ghazi Stadium, the country's main sports arena, had become notorious around the world after being used by the Taliban for mass executions. On December 15 it was finally reopened after a £20 million upgrade, with a new FIFA standard artificial pitch. Fans and authorities alike are hopeful that the team will soon be able to host qualifiers for the Asian Cup and the World Cup.
The arrival of the new ground is both welcome and timely. A lack of stadiums is a constant problem for the country's two leagues, the Afghan National League and the Kabul Premier League. "The leagues are improving but the federation has little money," said goalkeeper Hamidullah Yousufzai. "Clubs are usually tied to institutions who fund them but you can guess how profitable it is. We don't play as many competitive matches as we'd like to, nor do we earn much, which is why most senior players are not full-time footballers." It is also why the events of December 2011 were especially impressive and could perhaps mark the start of a new era in Afghanistan football.
From WSC 301 March 2012