More than Just a Game New Football League Helps Heal Afghanistan

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.

An Enlightenment Project

The sun is about to set, and the young men are unrolling their prayer rugs. Everyone on the team prays. There are arrows in the rooms pointing in the direction of Mecca. Sunnis and Shiites pray differently, but that doesn't matter here. Later one of the men brings out an instrument called a darya, similar to a tambourine, and together they loudly sing a folk song from their homeland: "Tailor, if you sew my jacket, then embroider it with some beautiful patterns." A singer is performing Indian pop music on television. Her hair is uncovered and she is wearing a dress with a deep neckline. These men from Kandahar would never allow their wives to go out in public like that. Almost half of the players are married with children, even though most are under 20. Pashtuns marry Pashtuns, Tajiks marry Tajiks and Uzbeks marry Uzbeks. There is no mixing of ethnic groups. Afghanistan hasn't come that far yet. When asked who their favorite players are, six of the men name Messi, four Ronaldo, two Zidane and one each names Iniesta, Özil and Khedira. One man says: "Schweinsteiger good."

The team's logo consists of two crossed swords. No one had expected much from them, but they are now the favorites in the semifinal.

Announcer Lashkari, broadcasting live, says: "De Maiwand Atalan is going on the offensive. But that's giving space to the opponents." The score is 0:2 in the 52nd minute.

A man is standing in the VIP stand, speaking into two mobile phones at once. Without him, this football show wouldn't exist. Saad Mohseni is the owner and founder of Tolo TV, as well as several other media outlets in the family-owned Moby Group, and he operates his company as an enlightenment project. The 46-year-old grew up in Australia, but returned to the country of his origin after the fall of the Taliban, and began building a private television station that horrified conservatives. Together with the Pashtu-language sister station Lemar TV, Tolo, the Persian word for "dawn," now has a 62-percent market share. The station wields an enormous amount of influence. Mohseni gazes with satisfaction at the crowd in the stadium. "I like it when they shout. Afghans show too little passion. We give them an outlet."

Mohseni is pursuing a cultural revolution with the tools of entertainment TV. In recent years, the station has produced a number of formats that violate Muslim taboos and bring a liberal, modern point of view into Afghan homes. The program Banu, or "Woman," which is devoted to women's issues and rights, triggered protests when it first went on the air, because it depicted women on television, not to mention also conversing with men on talk shows.

Another program, "The Ministry," a docu-fiction series modeled after "The Office," portrays everyday life at the Afghan Ministry of Waste, a hotbed of corruption and incompetence. Similarities with real-life individuals are as intentional as they are unavoidable. The action series "Eagle Four" is about a special police unit that handles cases typical of Afghanistan, such as thwarting suicide bombings and attacks on aircraft. But Tolo TV's biggest success is "Afghan Star," a singing talent contest based on the globally successful model of "Pop Idol." The Afghan version is already in its seventh season. In 2008, one of the finalists, a woman, received murder threats after doing a few dance steps that caused her headscarf to slip off.

Sticking to the Rules

Mohseni is watching the players, athletic young men with trendy haircuts. "People want to see these attractive guys," he says. "They don't want to see bearded fanatics."

In the 75th minute, there is a flurry of activity in the Simorgh Alborz penalty box. This isn't a game for football connoisseurs. Abdul Wahid Noorzai puts one in for the Kandahar team, bringing the score to 1:2. Now the team must try to play forward, equalize the score and force the game into overtime. The Kandahar coach is shouting and motioning in front of the substitutes' bench, and he is promptly given a warning for standing too close to the sidelines. The Afghan Premier League scrupulously sticks to FIFA rules, and a player who pulls off his jersey after a goal is also given a yellow card in Kabul. The league wants to do everything right and ensure that clear rules apply in the stadium, because there is enough chaos going on outside.

Perhaps it's the German influence that has helped shape the blossoming of Afghan football since 2002. Early on, the German Football League sent aid workers to Afghanistan, such as German-Afghan football teacher Ali Askar Lali, to establish football schools, train coaches and even create a women's football team.

Another five years, says media mogul Mohseni. Another five years and Afghanistan will have a professional league, he explains, and in 10 years the country's top players will be able to compete internationally.

Unless something gets in the way again, like yet another war. In recent weeks, a number of studies have given the country a grim prognosis for the period following the withdrawal of international security forces   in 2014. The studies predict fraud in upcoming elections, an escalation of violence and the return of the Taliban. What can a little football do to offset these forces, especially since Afghanistan's internal enemies don't participate in the tournaments? There is no FC Taliban.

A Dangerous Game

"The world is made of hope," says Asadullah Rezai.

Football announcer Lashkari says: "People have become accustomed to freedom, partly thanks to TV, and partly as a result of football, and they don't want to go back."

"Perhaps we'll lose a few battles, but we'll win in the end," says Tolo TV founder Mohseni.

Until then, Asadullah will keep dreaming and running after the ball. He hopes to wear the Afghan national jersey one day. Someone told him that his name is on a list. He dreams of going to a European club, perhaps even to Germany, just like the young Afghan-Australian Mustafa Amini, who plays for Borussia Dortmund, and who Afghans in Kabul worship as if he were one of their own. "If a German club called," says Asadullah, "I'd go there on foot."

People in his hometown of Lashkar Gah recognize him on the street, now that the football show is on TV. When he's working at the bank, they ask him why he isn't on the football field. His parents, who discouraged him from playing the sport because traveling to matches in other cities is so dangerous, are proud of him today. But they're also even more fearful, now that his face has become recognizable to fans and the enemy alike. He is a Hazara from Helmand, on the infidels' TV station. "If the Taliban recognize me, I'm dead," he says.

It's too late.

Even seven minutes of extra time isn't enough to prevent De Maiwand Atalan from losing 1:2 against Simorgh Alborz. The referee blows the final whistle, and the fans hoot and howl as if they were drunk. It doesn't seem important to them who won the match.

The players with the losing Kandahar team are lying on the field, as if they had been struck by a hail of meteorites, looking desperately sad and empty, while the men from Mazar-e-Sharif shout and hop around, kissing each other and anyone else in their path. The heroes of Maiwand have lost the match, outflanked by the mythical birds of Alborz.

Asadullah can't stop weeping. A player from the opposing team pulls him into a long embrace.

This article has been revised to reflect the fact that the games of the Afghan Premier League were not held at Ghazi Stadium but at the neighboring AFF Stadium.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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