More than Just a Game: New Football League Helps Heal Afghanistan

By Guido Mingels

Afghanistan's first football league is supposed to help bring peace to the country, but some players are risking their lives.

Wearing a blue, full-length burka, a 35-year-old mother of five named Zarmina walks toward the penalty line inside the Ghazi football stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan, where she will die. It's Nov. 16, 1999.

In the neighboring AFF stadium, on Oct. 11, 2012, Asadullah Rezai, an 18-year-old midfielder for his soccer team, De Maiwand Atalan, runs toward the penalty box. It's the semifinal in the Afghan Premier League. Rezai has a 15-centimer (6-inch) scar on his thigh from a bomb fragment.

In the past, it was a venue for death. Now it's a place of irrepressible life. The word Ghazi means "warrior" in Pashtun, and the edges of the stands are now decorated with huge portraits of war heroes and war criminals: Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, murdered; Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president, assassinated; Abdul Ali Mazari, a militia leader, murdered. There is also a portrait of current President Hamid Karzai, who, unlike the others, is still alive. Sports, blood and politics are inseparable in Afghanistan.

Asadullah's team is behind 0:1, and Asadullah is running.

In Afghanistan, an eternally open wound of world history, football is more than just a game that lasts 90 minutes. Football was the only popular pastime that the Taliban did not ban during its reign of terror from 1996 to 2001. The radical Islamists took advantage of the sport's popularity to assemble large crowds for propaganda events or, as on that November day in 1999 in Ghazi Stadium, to stage a public execution in front of thousands of onlookers. On days when there were matches, they would chop off the hand or foot of someone convicted of stealing during halftime, and sometimes they would hang criminals from the floodlight poles, leaving the bodies dangling for days, as a deterrent. Zarmina, whose death was secretly videotaped, had been found guilty of murdering her husband, allegedly by beating him to death with a hammer.

She kneels on the edge of the penalty line in Ghazi Stadium. A man walks up to her, holds the muzzle of a Kalashnikov to the back of her head and shoots.

Asadullah swerves past an opposing player, runs toward the penalty box, plays a double pass and kicks the ball high into the air, over the goal.

"Nice move by our friend with the number 17," says the stadium announcer. "Asadullaaaah!"

"Rezai!" the fans scream back.

Football Fever

Even in wartime, the Afghans have always been enthusiastic football fans. They played football in the 1980s, when the Russians were there, they played football in the 1990s, when the country was embroiled in a civil war in which Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbek were massacring each other, and they played football under the Taliban, albeit with long beards, long trousers and long sleeves. Shorts and T-shirts were prohibited. And since 2001, when the Americans and their allies arrived to liberate and occupy the country, they've become even more serious about playing football.

Kabul in October 2012 is a city in a state of self-imposed siege. All streets in the city center, home to the ministries, embassies, international organizations and hotels, are flanked by tall concrete barriers, with razor wire spilling over the top like steel vines. Side streets and driveways are sealed off with barriers or iron gates. Behind the many walls, foreigners are involved in nation-building, while Afghans out in the streets are honking their horns, stuck in traffic jams.

Stickers bearing the names and emblems of their favorite clubs, often FC Barcelona or Real Madrid, sometimes Manchester United, and rarely Bayern Munich, are affixed to the rear windows of their Toyota Corollas or the backs of their donkey carts. Wherever there are a few square meters of open space, in the neglected parks or between graves in the cemeteries, there are children playing football -- barefoot, dirty and happy. Throngs of children run through the dust on the large field in front of the heavily damaged Darul Aman Palace, a favorite target of all invaders. "The Future is Ours," reads a poster for the Afghan football league at the entrance to the AFF stadium.

The semifinal match has been going on for 23 minutes. There has been one foul and one injury. "Oh, oh, oh, that hurts," the young announcer, Mokhtar Lashkari, shouts into his microphone. The match is broadcast live, and an estimated one-third of Afghanistan's 30 million people are watching on television. More than 80 percent of the country's urban households reportedly have a TV set, and in the countryside, where there is often no electricity, they hook their TV sets to diesel generators or car batteries.

A proud lion, the mascot of the Afghan Premier League, and the slogan "For a Better Afghanistan," appear on the stadium screen and on TVs throughout the country. Above the lion are eight stars, symbolizing the eight teams from all parts of the country that were assembled for this tournament in recent months with the help of a TV casting show. The show is called Maidan e Sabz, or "The Green Pitch," and it's essentially a reality talent show for future football stars. The producers redrew the map of Afghanistan, grouping the 34 provinces into eight larger zones. They gave each team an imposing name, such as "Falcons of the White Mountains," "Storm from the Harirod River," and "Eagle of the Hindu Kush."

Bringing a Divided Nation Together

"Noorzai to Faizi. Faizi to Rezai. Rezai to Ghobal," Lashkari barks into his microphone as his words are broadcast throughout the country. "But they're playing against a wall." Football announcers sound the same everywhere in the world.

The name of Asadullah's team, De Maiwand Atalan, means "Heroes of Maiwand," named after a battle that took place in 1880, when the Afghans defeated the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The players are from the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz. It's the most dangerous part of the country, with attacks occurring every few days. Their opponents, Simorgh Alborz, a name inspired by the Simorgh, a mythical bird, are from the northern provinces around Mazar-e-Sharif.

"It's going to be tough for our friends from Kandahar. They have no room," says Lashkari. The 26-year-old with a baby face and a boy-group haircut is the star of Tolo TV, Afghanistan's equivalent of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Afghans say he has an almost magnetic charisma. Lashkari wants to "bring the people of Afghanistan together through television." It's worth mentioning, he adds, that the parents of the young men now playing football together "fought against and murdered each other."

It was Lashkari who, in recent months, traveled all over the country with his camera team for the casting sessions. In some cities, more than 1,000 young footballers showed up and were subjected to various group tests by a jury of experienced coaches. The aspiring players were tested for endurance, technical dexterity and general knowledge of the game. They had to dribble balls around an obstacle course, shoot at goal walls and drag heavy tractor tires. They were also expected to answer technical questions, such as how much a football weighs and how wide the goal is.

The experts directly nominated 18 players per team, and the TV crew made video portraits of six others, from whom the television audience selected the last three players by texting their choices in conjunction with the Maidan e Sabz show, which was broadcast at a later date. The concept of a casting show has to be stretched a little for this process, but it doesn't matter, says Lashkari, because "it was about attracting people's attention."

Older Than His Years

It was also about assembling players from all regions, men who would normally never be standing together on the same field, because there was no national league until now. The Afghan national team, 166th in the FIFA ranking, which for security reasons usually plays its home games in India, consists almost exclusively of men from Kabul or abroad. Until now, the team's organizers have had no notion of the talent that exists in the country, or of whether it exists at all. Now they have a better idea. In the preliminary round, Asadullah's team beat the favored team from Kabul, which includes six national players, 3:1. Asadullah made the passes for all three goals.

"Allah guides my foot," he says.

But in the semifinal, his team is behind at halftime.

It's because of his skill that Asadullah is able to play in this tournament, but it's pure chance that he is still alive. He is from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province. He says he has five sisters and eight brothers, his father is a government official, the family runs a small shop and he works as a bank teller.

With his Mongolian features, including the so-called Mongolian fold in his eyelids, he is unmistakably a member of the Hazara ethnic group, allegedly descended from Genghis Khan's Mongol army. He looks closer to 30 than 18. "Too many experiences," he says. It's hard to imagine a lonelier minority than the Hazara in Helmand, a small ethnic group that has repeatedly been the target of discrimination throughout history, a Shiite, Persian-speaking people surrounded by Sunni Pashtuns.

The Taliban treated the Hazara as an underclass, recruiting them as servants and henchmen, or just killing them outright. "I'm the only Hazara on my team," says Asadullah, "but there are no problems."

Three months ago, Asadullah and six teammates on his home team, the "Kabul Bank Team Helmand," were driving to a regional match in Herat in an old Toyota Land Cruiser when, near the town of Gereshk, when a remotely triggered bomb planted by insurgents exploded a few meters from the vehicle. It was filled with nails and screws, and metal fragment sliced off the ear of a man sitting in the back seat, while another fragment passed through the driver's door and pierced Asadullah's right thigh.

Playing Through Pain

He shows pictures of the vehicle, riddled with holes, and pulls up his robe to expose the dark-red scar. When he stepped out of the vehicle, Asadullah collapsed. Doctors removed a large piece of a screw from his leg. Asadullah went to the Premier League casting just four weeks later.

His brother Akhtar Mohammed, 33, a former Afghan national player who travels with the team like a real-life mascot, is wearing a bandage on his right arm, and his hand is swollen. He keeps squeezing a small rubber ball to exercise the traumatized muscles of his forearm. On Aug. 16 of this year, he was on his way to the casting event in Kandahar to support his brother when he suddenly saw armed men standing in the road 100 meters ahead. Akhtar works as a driver for the American aid organization International Relief and Development, which the insurgents see as the enemy. "That's why I'm a target for the Taliban," he says. He tried to get away, but they opened fire and three bullets hit his arm.

Asadullah remembers a day when he was still a child in Lashkar Gah, perhaps six years old, and the Taliban was in power. "They came into our shop and wanted three ropes," he says. "As usual, they didn't pay. I got the ropes and gave them to the men." Later on, he saw three bodies hanging from a construction crane on the football pitch. "They were hanging from my ropes."

When the De Maiwand Atalan players train at Ghazi Stadium, Asadullah's brother Akhtar always plays with them, and his injury isn't noticeable. He pushes the younger players when they get tired. "Friends," he says, "I'm faster than you, and I have three gunshot wounds. Let's go!"

After training, the heroes of Maiwand sit in the 9th-floor hallway at the Roshan Plaza in Kabul, a dirty, rundown hotel, where four players share a double room. Some are wearing the T-shirts of their favorite clubs, and one is walking around in the German national team's jersey, but most of the men wear traditional robes. In room 913, the substitute goalkeeper and a striker are playing football on a PlayStation: AC Milan versus FC Arsenal. The young coach hands out plastic plates of pomegranate seeds, an energy food he brought along from Kandahar. The coach describes Asadullah as "a player like Xavi," a star midfielder for FC Barcelona, go-to player, a thinker and a controlling force on the field. Asadullah smiles.

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