For two weeks this January, 18 Afghan women escaped the worries of daily life at home and concentrated on what they love best: playing football.
The visit to Stuttgart by the national football players, aged between 16 and 23, was part of an ongoing project financed by the German government to develop football in Afghanistan. Since 2004, the project, organized by the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), has also included the women's game.
The German football trainer Klaus Stärk has been working with the men's and women's teams in Afghanistan for almost four years. From Jan. 21 until Feb. 1, the women national players trained in Stuttgart, the home town of German footballing legend Jürgen Klinsmann, giving them the first opportunity to play on proper football fields and to display their skills in public. They also found time to do some shopping in downtown Stuttgart.
SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to Stärk about his work in Afghanistan and how the women players fared during their two weeks training in Germany.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did the visit to Stuttgart come about?
Klaus Stärk: We have been working on the establishment of football in Afghanistan since 2003 and have also developed women's football there. The project is organized by the DOSB and financed by the German Foreign Ministry. Last summer we chose the best 25 female players who could represent their country and decided to bring them to Stuttgart's Ruit sports school for two weeks of training this January.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So this is the Afghan national team?
Stärk: You could say that. They havent played any international games yet, but when that happens, this team will be representing Afghanistan.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How did you manage to establish women's football in Afghanistan?
Stärk: In 2004 we started instructing the teachers and trainers, who then went on to set up women's football teams. By last year we already had 15 girls teams in Kabul and now there are 23.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And have the girls faced problems in playing football?
Stärk: Naturally. Many of the girls had problems, particularly when we were first establishing football there. Many said they couldnt continue because their father or mother, or most often their brothers, wouldnt allow them to play football.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But they wanted to play anyway?
Stärk: Yes, they are really strong, I must admit. They are stubborn and they persevere, something that is really wonderful. We and the Afghan Football Association have also done a lot of work to convince the parents. We keep in contact with them all the time and try to persuade them that it is totally normal for girls to play football.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the women are not allowed to play in public?
Stärk: No, they always have to play behind closed doors, and the national team's playing field is part of the army club and is protected by the military.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What does it mean for women to be able to play football?
Stärk: First of all they can be active and dont have to stay at home all the time like they did under the Taliban. And they are getting good exercise. They train three to four times a week and they love to play. The do everything with such joy and dedication. And the ones who can play for the national team can travel abroad and really improve their quality of life.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What did they think of Germany?
Stärk: They really enjoyed themselves, always laughing and smiling. They had a really great impression of Germany. On Thursday they went shopping everwhere in Stuttgart city center. They could move around freely and of course they bought lots of things they can't get in Kabul. They came back to the sports school with huge bags and shining eyes.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In what ways did they have to adjust to how the game is played in Germany?
Stärk: In Afghanistan they play on small fields, seven against seven. But in Stuttgart they played 11 against 11 on a big playing field. The aim of the training camp was to work with the girls so that they would get used to the game on the bigger pitches.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That must have been difficult in just two weeks -- did they improve a lot?
Stärk: Absolutely. We organized a lot of friendly games with teams from the Stuttgart area. The Afghan team got better after each game. At first, of course, they lost heavily, but they actually won their last match. You could really see a marked improvement in their abilities.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Will any of them become professional players?
Stärk: Not this generation, it's too early for that. But in the younger generation we have some really talented 12- and 13-year-olds. So a few may one day play abroad in professional teams.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you live in Afghanistan yourself?
Stärk: Yes, I have been living in Kabul for six or seven months of the year since 2004. You really can't compare life there to Germany. With the security and political situation, you can't go out at night. It can be lonely. But during the day it is just like in Germany, working with the athletes, although the facilities are not as good.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have worked in Lebanon, Mongolia and Pakistan training footballers. What role can sport play in developing countries?
Stärk: Sport can help us to reach a lot of people. And we can open up new perspectives for young people.
Interview conducted by Siobhán Dowling