Kabul Olympic Stadium sometimes was turned in to an arena for executions and floggings under the Taleban regime. For this, it became world-famous. But to do the venue some justice, most of the time it was used for proper sports. Thomas Ruttig visited a match there – football in Afghanistan 2000: Air goals by funnily clad players on a brownish-green pitch, in front of war-damaged stands with bullet-riddled walls and steaming samowars.
Ittehad, all in red, attacks. The stocky left midfield player with the number 8 on his back picks up a pass and runs toward the goal of the opposing site, Isteqlal. From 30 meters distance, he hits the ball that slightly jolts on the uneven ground. He hits it perfectly and the tailwind does the rest: It perfectly arcs into the goal, just under the crossbar. 1-0 for the underdog. Some reluctant clapping on the stands. But no one shouts ‘Allahu Akbar!’ as the Taleban have decreed –they consider this the only truly Islamic form of applause.
In Kabul, the ball is kicked again and spectators as well as the players are on it with the same enthusiasm as anywhere else in this world where football is a substitute religion. Very much so in Afghanistan where the Taleban have banned almost anything else that entertains – or what, as they see it, deflects people’s attention from concentrating on Allah: movies and TV, music when it not drums or religious rap without accompanying instruments as broadcasted by Radio Sharia; Western dress for men or high heels for ladies which could send out eroticizing clicks; trendy hairdo or trimmed beards.
Sports, and ball games in particular, were also forbidden for a while but the Taleban could not keep this up. Soon Afghans all over the place were kicking the round leather again, even in the Taleban’s stronghold Kandahar opposite Mulla Omar’s headquarters where the pitch is so dust hat you have to wait for the dust to settle down after a particularly brazen attack. In Kabul, on Fridays amateur teams meet on the former parade and fair ground, the chaman, some teams in uniform dress, self-made.
Just a few days ago, the Taleban religious police – the notorious Amr bi-l-maruf – had raided a match in Kandahar between a local team and one from Chaman, just across the border in Pakistan. The guests dared to appear in shorts, and as a punishment the Taleban cropped their heads. Five of them were able to escape and safe their long hair. When the players complained at home, the Kandahar governor – the number 3 in the overall Taleban hierarchy – had to apologized. Reportedly, the responsible commander was fired.
Also some players in the match between Isteqlal and Ittehad wear shorts but here in Kabul no one seems to bother. The dress is a combination of Western football gear and concessions to Islam. Good Muslims, it is said, are supposed to wear trousers that cover the knees at least. Consequently, wide patluns (traditional Pashtun trousers) legs peep out under colourful football shorts, looking oddly enough. Since the players also need to cover their hair, they have to wear skull caps, too. But what don’t you do to enjoy a bit of fun. The teams also sport jerseys with shirt numbers, one player even has his name on his back, in Latin letters, like in a professional league: Tariqian.
The match is part of a series sponsored by a rich Kabul businessman who rented the Kabul stadium in which the Taleban sometimes carry out executions or corporal punishments. The lawn is battered, more brown than green, the stands war-damaged. Except for the concrete steps, there are no seats anymore. The walls are riddled with bullets, the floodlights have been torn out. What is left is overseen by the head of the National Olympic Committee who, naturally, is a mulla. Behind the stands, some office doors are still adorned by name plates – but behind them, there is only dusty emptiness.
In the stadium itself, hundreds of beggars – most of them kids or teenagers – and panhandlers are trying to do their businesses. From wheelbarrows, baskets and pushcarts everything is sold what the Afghan supporter needs: juice in tetrapaks, fresh peaches, dried dates. On aluminium samowars the tea water is boiling. But no club merchandise is offered, no one carries shawls or flags or blows into horns.
This is the Kabul Spring Cup – but spring is long gone and there is still some time to go to the finals. After that, a kind of championship is planned during which the best players are to be selected for the national team. But this won’t have many rivals, except for Pakistan – if incidents like the one in Kandahar are not repeated. The Taleban are not recognized internationally, also not by FIFA, and so the national team won’t be allowed to compete officially.
But that doesn’t matter now – the match must go on. The 22 players take it pretty serious. Before the kick-off, both teams do a rhythmic warm-up, in formation. The referee wears a Western-style tracksuit but that does not help: He is by far the most incompetent on the pitch. In general, the match is played fairly. Only the uneven ground causes some technical mistakes and unwarranted collisions. Some spectators sit immediately at the touchline and every throw-in has to be carried out over their heads. After a tackle, the fouled player is comfortably cushioned by the fans.
Funnily enough, the still-functioning but crackling amplifier system transmits what turns out to be a life comment, interrupted by some announcements and even explanation of football rules. ‘Tariqian passes to Hashemi, Hashemi passes to Sedaqat. Offsite! – Dear spectators, to remind you, next Tuesday Maiwand will play Red Crescent.’
Suddenly, some Taleban pick-ups enter the stadium through the main gate and drive up to the pitch. The fighters jump out of their cars and interrupt the match. It is prayer time and the prayers cannot wait five more minutes when it would be halftime anyway.
The two teams and the some 1,500 spectators, all men obviously (except for Kate – see her report on our blog, too), line up in rows on the pitch, face Mecca – which lies exactly beyond the goal into which Ittehad’s number 8 had put his gol-e shamali (wind goal) some minutes before as my Afghan companions called it laughingly.
Two days earlier, when 15,000 people watched Jawanan-e Maihan against Kabul Club, the Taleban had problems getting the people to pray. They swung their pattus, the all-purpose blankets, herding them from the stands to the pitch – but at least they were not using sticks or leather straps as elsewhere at such occasions. But many of the fans managed to escape through the gates and dodged the obligatory religious ritus.
First published in: tageszeitung (Berlin), 27 July 2000
This article was last updated on 21 Apr 2020