Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

X-Factor Football: Afghanistan’s New Football Premier League

Thomas Ruttig 7 min

Afghanistan’s first-ever professional football league has reached the semi-final stage. This has lifted Afghan football – which has been part of international football since the 1948 London Olympics – to a new level of organisation. For the first time, Afghanistan has a club competition, something which, in most countries, is the basis for selecting the national team. So far, no-one has really been able to say that the Afghan national teams which competed in qualifiers for World Cups or Olympic Games actually fielded the best players in the country. However, the way the new league has been established – in a game show format and with regional, not city teams – also raises some questions, says Thomas Ruttig, AAN Senior Analyst (and once a Berlin under-14 football champion with one of the German capital’s most prestigious clubs, 1. FC Union).

After almost two weeks of competition, the semi-finals of Afghanistan’s first professional football league have been set: De Maiwand Atalan, the southern regions team, will face the easterners of De Spinghar Bazanon 2 October, while, the following day, the northerners of Simorgh Alborz play Oqaban-e Hindukushfrom the northeast. The new league has been met with enthusiasm by spectators and players alike, especially given the goal-rich matches played so far (28 goals over eight games). The fact of this league has brought Afghanistan a step closer to having a regular football system on the basis of which a good national team can be selected.
Afghanistan’s Football Federation (AFF) was founded as early as 1933. It became a member of FIFA, the worldwide football association, in 1948 and was a co-founder of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1954. The first club – Mahmudiya FC – was established in 1934.(1) Despite these decades of footballing history, the country’s players have lacked international exposure, particularly in the last three decades of war. This was due not only to long periods of international isolation – during the Soviet occupation (1979-89), the mujahedin period and the Taleban regime (1996-2001)(2) but also to the lack of an organised country-wide league.

Lacking a national championship, cricket, a relative newcomer in Afghan sports (brought home by refugees from Pakistan), has overtaken football as Afghanistan’s number one team sport, not least because of the success of Afghan teams on the top international level. On the other hand, hockey, once very popular and relatively successful, seems to be almost completely forgotten. It is difficult to gauge, however, whether wrestling or bodybuilding – link – mobilise more participants than football or cricket. And then there is buzkashi, the national sport on horseback, of course. To get it on the international level, though, Afghanistan first needs to persuade its Turkic Central Asian neighbours to join in and organise regional tournaments.

So far, Afghan national football teams have been chosen from neighbourhood or government institutions’ clubs in the capital and also sometimes from other major cities. Kabul clubs like Maiwand Club(3), Kabul Club, Jawanan-e Maihan, the club of the army, or Red Crescent Club have a long tradition and many fans and were even active under the Taleban who initially tried to suppress football but were not able to. Instead, they had to tolerate a Kabuli league, financed by local businessmen (read about their barely tolerated matches under the Taleban here and here). After 2001, these teams were revived, and new teams added, for example one representing the scandal-ridden Kabul Bank (one of our blogs on the scandal here and some reporting here and here). For the 2010 World Cup qualification, the national team included several Afghans living and playing abroad.(4)

Since 2001, the national team has participated in international competitions like the qualifiers for the World Cup(5), the Asian Cup, the Olympic and the Asian Games and in the South Asian championship. It has now climbed from rock bottom – 204 in the FIFA world ranking – to a respectable 165, as of September 2012. It is now South Asia’s second-best team (only the Maldives are ranked higher).(6)

But the first international match after the fall of the Taleban regime was an unofficial one. In February 2002, a Kabul selection played a (mainly British) ISAF team in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium – and the enthusiasm it created soon turned into violent scenes: more than 30,000 tickets had been sold in advance, with no regard for the stadium’s capacity which had been reduced for security reasons. Thousands of spectators who were denied access although they held tickets, plus others who had just turned up on the day tried to storm the stadium and were held back only by baton charges and warning shots by the Afghan police and tear gas by German ISAF forces. Those outside responded by pelting the stadium with stones, injuring a number of soldiers. The ugly scenes outside was matched by disappointment inside the stadium: although the Afghan team scored the first goal, causing a gale of applause, the ISAF team very undiplomatically hit back and won 3:1.

The way the Roshan Afghan Premier League was created this year represents an unusual shortcut, though. This has to do with the country’s main telecom company, Roshan, that is the major sponsor of the new league, It took the recipe of the X Factor-like ‘Afghan Star’ show – also a Roshan-sponsored and very popular event – and set up a TV show calledMaidan-e Sabz, ‘Green Field’, through which eight teams – one for each of the country’s seven unofficial regions, plus the capital, Kabul – with 18 players each were casted for the league. In order to make into one of the eight teams, candidates had to prove their physical, mental and football skills, in a series of tests live on screen, that were more reminiscent of a reality show format then real soccer. This included ‘running through mud and water while wearing ankle weights and then heading a suspended football’. The TV audience could then phone in and vote individual players into the teams over several stages where the lowest scorers were eliminated from the competition. (See the league’s website here.)

Kick-off for the league was on 18 September and matches are taking place on a new synthetic turf pitch, with stands for 5,000 spectators, near the Ghazi Stadium. They are broadcast live on Tolo and Lmar TV, linked to the League’s co-sponsors, the Moby Media Group. FIFA and AFC have extended official recognition. (Watch some of the earlier matches in full on YouTube, for example, here.)

The Telegraph’s Ben Farmer has just described the tournament’s atmosphere:

If the selection system appeared gimmicky, the excitement […] was genuine. The two-week-old Afghan Premier League has proven an overnight hit and its daily matches are already attracting crowds of thousands and significant television audiences. […] Pashtu and Dari pop music blared through the stadium speakers before the match. […] Expectation at the first matches was so high that the Kabul venue was swamped with spectators and police had to use water hoses and sticks to repel crowds of ticketless boys swarming into the stadium.

When the Kandahari region’s team, De Maiwand Atalan, made it to the semi-finals after 3:1 and 3:0 wins against Kabul’s Shahin Asma’i and the south-eastern, De Abasin Sape, and looked like the coming champions, Farmer reported on the Afghan-style sponsorship that owes to the country’s Buzkashi tradition where players are remitted in the same way:

[T]he stadium announcer listed gifts being showered on the team as Kandahari businessmen and MPs in the “VVIP area” vied to outdo each other’s largesse. Mohammad Ishaq Aloko, the Afghan attorney general, gave them 100,000 Afghani (£1,200). Lalai Hamidzai, an MP who reportedly grabbed a police heavy machine gun and fired on Taliban fighters as they assaulted parliament in April, gave $5,000 (£3,000) to the players. Even the referees received $300 from one Kandahari elder.

It seems that some players, at least, of the ‘old’ neighbourhood and institutional clubs have joined the new system. But it remains to be seen whether the two systems, each with its own advantages, will be integrated and form a stronger new model of selection for the national side.

The names chosen for the new artificially created teams are clearly designed to create patriotic feelings, invoking geographical and historical places as well as featuring emblematic raptors. Afghanistan’s mountains feature prominently: from the central region are the ‘Hindukush Eagles’ (Oqaban); from Kabul, the Shahin Asma’i, ‘the Falcons’ of one of the capital’s two landmark hills; the eastern team, De Spinghar Bazan, ‘the Hawks’ of the famous White Mountains (that include the Tora Bora caves).Simorgh Alburz, from the north, refer to the mythical Persian bird, the Simurgh, and to the Alburz mountains, south of Mazar-e Sharif. The north-eastern team is the Mawjha-ye Amu, the ‘Waves of the Oxus (Amu Darya), and the western team is Tufan-e Harirod, the ‘Storm of the Harirud (River)’.

Abasin Sape are ‘The Clean Ones from the Indus River’ – which is in Pakistan – (the Kabul River is a tributary, though), although it might fit with some Afghans’ nationalistic – or even irredentist – idea of geography. Even more so, the name of the sweeping De Maiwand Atalan, the ‘Maiwand Heros’, alludes to the battle of Maiwand on 27 July 1880 in what now is Kandahar province when an Afghan lashkar defeated an invading British army, still a source of pride for Afghans.

The League’s organisers insist the competition is aimed at fostering national unity – not least by making it possible for players to be bought and sold across regional boundaries which would make the ethnic character of each region’s team less relevant. This is important as football since football, even in less conflictive countries, can get very serious and create rivalries that sometimes can become ‘traditional’ when taking on ethnic or sectarian colours, as between Barca and Real in the Spanish league (with rivalries both linguistic and dating back to the Spanish civil war of the 1930s) or between Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow (where sectarian antagonism has traditionally been driven by the (Northern) Irish conflict).Also, voting in the Afghan Star competition did show some ethnic aspects.

But there are positive examples nearer by, where sport did bring a nation together. Witness Iraq’s post-war football team, with Sunni, Shia and Kurds playing side by side, who took fourth place in the 2004 Olympics and later won the Asian title, cheered in unison by all communities in the country. Or on Afghan home soil, the countrywide support for Olympic medallist and new national hero, the taekwondo champion, Rohullah Nekpa.

(1) Afghanistan’s first international match was a 0:0 with Iran in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium on 25 August 1941. The first official international match happened at the 1948 London Olympics and was lost to Luxemburg 0:6. The last results of Afghanistan’s men’s national team reported by FIFA are from the 2011 South Asian championship, with two wins against Bhutan (8:1) and Nepal (1:0), but a 0:4 defeat by India in the final.

(2) 1984 saw the last appearance of the Afghan national team for many years when it played in the 1984 Asian Cup qualification in Guangzhou (China). There, the national team scored just one point, by a draw with Hong Kong, while losing to China (0:6), Qatar (0:8) and Jordan (1:6). Earlier already, after the Soviets had invaded in 1979, the entire national team defected on a trip abroad. (Most of the players went to Germany. 20 of them returned home in 2003 for a friendly match against a team from the Afghan National Olympic Committee’s staff.) Between 1984 and 2002, Afghanistan’s national team did not enter any international competition. Then, it entered the qualification for the Asian Games again but did not get through. Another defection took place in 2005 when nine players of the new post-Taleban team disappeared in Italy (some were later arrested), on the team’s first trip to Europe.

(3) Not to be confused with the new De Maiwand Atalan. Maiwand Club of Kabul is named after the neighbourhood, around Jada-ye Maiwand(Maiwand Street, in Old Kabul).

(4) They include four playing in top league clubs, with Dutch SV Heerenveen, the US Premier League’s Bay Area Ambassadors, Bahrain’s Al-Hadd and India’s Mumbai FC as well as some lower-league players from Germany (SV Wehen, VfB Oldenburg, Altona 93 and Hessen Kassel).

(5) Unfortunately, Afghanistan has already been knocked out from the qualification for the2014 World Cup in Brazil by Palestine (1:3 on aggregate) in the first round last year.

(6) Despite a recent 4:0 win over Pakistan, Afghanistan’s women’s team is still at the very bottom worldwide (rank 128). But that’s where their male colleagues have started as well.