Economy & Development

Little Leagues, Great Hopes: Afghan grassroots football kicks off


Afghanistan’s football premier league and its national team have received tremendous attention inside and outside the country, particularly after the national team’s victory in the 2013 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) championship. Children’s football, on the other hand, has gone largely unnoticed – although experts say that an Afghan team has the chance to even make it to the children’s world cup. Provincial, regional and national leagues are in the making and grassroots football programmes take place across the country. AAN’s guest author Said Reza Kazemi* had fun watching tournaments in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium and explains how this branch of Afghan football is gradually professionalising its organisational structures.

It is a cold early winter morning. Maiwand and Sabawun, 14, classmates and best friends in the Mahmud Tarzi High School (1) in Kabul’s Darulaman area, are out with their small backpacks, leaving for the tournament held for the teams of the 14-year-olds (more on other age groups below) in the capital’s Ghazi Stadium (2). “Today is our second match. We never played on such a field. We are anxious, but it’s great that our parents encourage us”, they say on their way to the stadium.

Maiwand and Sabawun are among some 640 children from Kabul who compete in 34 teams to claim the 14-year-olds’ title. Additionally, the teams struggle to draw the attention of the coaches of the Afghan Football Federation (AFF) to their players, hoping for them to be elected into the national team for the 14-year-olds that was established in early 2013. The 34 teams compete in knock-out matches over five stages leading up to the final, there is victory or defeat only. Most of the participating children have had no experience playing in a stadium, and many of the teams, like Maiwand’s and Sabawun’s Erfan (Mysticism), have been put together out of circles of friends just before the start of the tournament.

Play football, not conflict

The initiative of the Afghan Football Federation started four years ago, in 2010. It had been modelled after the concept developed by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Grassroots football programme takes place for groups of children – boys and girls – aged six to 16. The Afghan Football Federation intends to gather as many people, particularly children, as possible to play football, primarily for pleasure, but also in order to broaden the basis of the sport in society and garner future support, encouraging children to become initiators of tournaments or trainers in their communities and continue to do so as adults (for more on grassroots football as a concept see also here). Another important objective is to foster future players for the Afghan football premier league and the national team.

Technical and financial support from the FIFA, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and the German and Azerbaijan’s football associations have helped to develop the project. Also the AFC’s initiative to dedicate the year of 2013 to the grassroots football movement under the motto “Let’s Play!” has been helpful (read AFC country reports here).

In addition to the external support, Afghan government officials, teachers and parents have cooperated for events across the country. In 2013, the AFF set up four regional grassroots football programmes in the north (held in Jowzjan, including children from Balkh, Faryab and Sar-e Pul), in the east (held in Nangarhar, including children from Kunar and Laghman), in the centre (held in Parwan, including children from Kapisa and Panjshir) and in the capital Kabul (see also here and here). Some 1,400 children – with boys and girls mixed in events only in the relatively liberal provinces of Jowzjan and Kabul – have attended grassroots football festivals and about 100 instructors have received training in grassroots football seminars.

The organisators have put the primary emphasis on the ‘festivals’ with a view to creating an atmosphere of fun for the participating children and encouraging them to do sports. But there have been positive side-effects. In interviews with parents and local authorities from different provinces, the author felt that communities where officials, teachers and families join hands to work for children, enabling them to play and feel good about it, seem to be less vulnerable to the narrative of Afghanistan’s ‘doom’ in 2014. “We have been busy with our football project for the children, and it was reassuring to see that we can build things that last and that do our families good”, local people and authorities said. It seems as if the project enhanced, to some extent, social relationships and solidarity in families, neighbourhoods and communities. Afghanistan’s football in general has also, at least partially, enhanced social harmony among ethno-political groups prone to conflict (3).

The three first regional grassroots football programmes (in Jowzjan, Nangarhar and Parwan) received little attention, though, mostly from the local Afghan media only. Astonishingly, the visit of Michel Platini, former French world-class player and now head of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), to the fourth programme in Kabul in September 2013 did not make waves either. But that might have been due to the fact that he only came for a few hours and did not see much of the children (4). He kicked the ball off in the tournament, but then resorted to talk and eat with AFF Chief Keramuddin Keram, a former provincial governor of Panjshir, briefly met President Karzai and departed.

Parents and women increasingly involved

Another development, too, deserves more attention: the involvement of a larger number of parents in their children’s football. “It is for the first time that the Afghan Football Federation has developed a relationship with an increasing number of parents. They encourage their kids, bring them to the stadium, cheer when they win and console them when they lose”, stated Sayyed Ali, a senior member of AFF’s Youth Affairs Committee. This is significant progress in a society like the Afghan one where it is difficult for parents and children to devote time to sports that must otherwise be prudently spent on making a living for the family, many of these families barely scraping by. Making time for children and encouraging them to fill a good part of their time with fun means to steer away from children being viewed as ‘little adults’ that early on have to contribute to the family’s survival. About 40 per cent of all Afghan children still do not go to school, but often work; others combine both, going to school in the morning and working on the streets or fields or helping out in shops, at tailors or mechanics in the afternoon.

Remarkably, the grassroots project does not stop with the boys. In late November 2013, girls aged below 16 competed in a tournament in Kabul to make it into the Afghan girls’ football premier league (to be held in March/April 2014 with teams also from Balkh and Herat) and into the Afghan women’s and the under-16 Afghan girls’ national football teams (watch a video here; also see here and here). In 2013, Afghan women’s football has risen from rank 111 in the FIFA ranking to rank 108. However, Afghan girls’ and women’s football can only be watched by their relatives or other girls and women, due to cultural and gender considerations.

Support from ministries, businesses and politicians

All this progress does not mean that the kids’ football is without issues, though. There is inequality among the teams in the 14-year-old boys’ tournament (4), for example in terms of sponsorship and experience. Some of the teams are being modestly supported by Afghan government institutions, for example Fedrasiyun, Federation, that is supported by the AFF or Ordu, Army, that is sponsored by the ministry of defence. Others are supported by ethno-political organisations or parties (e.g., Mojtama-ye Shahid Mazari, Martyr Mazari Complex, named after a war-time Hazara leader), business firms  (e.g., Tolo Travel Agency, sponsored of course by the Tolo Travel Agency) and social institutions (e.g., Jawanan-e Morad Khani, Youth of Morad Khani, at least initially supported by the international NGO Turquoise Mountain). Some teams, for example Dawat, Call, have named themselves to attract support – in this case from the Dawat party led by presidential hopeful Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf (6). The sponsored teams are better equipped and able to gather more experience playing in a stadium than the ones without organised support. This inequality undermines fair play, at least to some extent.

Another challenge to ensure fair play is the determination of the players’ real age due to widespread inaccuracies in tazkeras or national identity documents (for a similar problem with regard to the upcoming elections as a larger national phenomenon, see a previous AAN dispatch here). This author, who watched several matches in the 14-year-old boys’ tournament, saw coaches on several occasions furiously protest against players who looked older than 14.

Heading for Tashkent

These problems aside, the future looks promising for Afghan kids’ football. Main supporters in 2014 will be the German Football Association (DFB) and GIZ, the German government’s development agency. For the 14-year-olds, the AFF intends to professionalise tournaments further and set up provincial, regional and national leagues. And the Afghan 14-year-old national team – some players will be selected from among the teams in the on-going tournament – already passed the South Asian qualifying matches in Kathmandu, Nepal in April 2013.

“Afghan children have made it to the Asian qualifying competitions next year in Tashkent and they can even make it to the children’s world cup”, says Juan Marcos Troia, the Argentinian coach of the 14-year-old national team (7).

 

See also AAN’s thematic dossier “Football in Afghanistan” here.

 

* Said Reza Kazemi is currently a PhD student at the University of Heidelberg, focussing on the impact of global migration on the Afghan family institution in local and transnational contexts as part of a larger study on the demographic turn in the junction of cultures. He has previously worked as a researcher for the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).

 

(1) The school is named after Mahmud Tarzi, the famous Afghan foreign minister of the 1920s, who is also known as the father of Afghan journalism. More about him in this AAN paper.

(2) The Ghazi Stadium is named after Amanullah Khan, a progressive Afghan king (r. 1919-1929), known as the Ghazi, or “victor of a religiously mandated war”. The stadium has a history as troubled as Afghanistan’s larger socio-political story. It was initially built during the reign of Amanullah Khan and later developed during the rule of Zaher Shah (r. 1933-1973), Afghanistan’s last king who died in July 2007. Zaher Shah’s uncle, Shah Mahmud, Afghan commander-in-chief and prime minister (1929-1953), encouraged the development of sports in the country. The Ghazi Stadium has long been the venue favoured by Afghanistan’s ruling elite of various times to display their power during public commemoration events. The governments of Daud Khan, the Afghan communists, the mujahedin, the Taleban and the Karzai government have used the stadium for various symbolic purposes. Still largely in its original shape but with a field newly covered by artificial grass, the stadium also represents the post-2001 ‘big tent’ approach to politics in Afghanistan, with large posters of Afghan ‘heroes’ installed in a half-circle shape around the stadium, overlooking the players and the spectators. These include, from right to left from the stadium’s public entrance: Mirwais Khan, founder of the Hotaki dynasty (r. 1709-1738) and known with the Pashtu nickname Nika (‘Grandfather’); Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president and chair of the High Peace Council, assassinated in September 2011; Hamed Karzai; Zaher Shah; Ahmad Shah Massud, a leading mujahedin commander during the Afghan-Soviet war and the subsequent civil war; Amanullah Khan; Ahmad Shah Baba, ‘the father’ of modern Afghanistan; and Abdul Ali Mazari, the Hazara mujahedin leader).

Source for the history of Ghazi Stadium: Interviews with Naim Karimi who has been involved in the Afghan National Olympics Committee for many years, 25 December 2013, Kabul; and with Hamed Elmi, a previous Afghan deputy presidential spokesman who is currently researching football in Afghanistan, Kabul, 28 December 2013

(3) For some social science literature on the positive influence of sport in social development and harmony, read, for instance, Armstrong, Gary (2002) “Talking Up the Game: Football and the Reconstruction of Liberia, West Africa”, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, vol. 9, issue 4, pp. 471-494.

For research that views the ‘sport-enhances-social-development’ model with caution, see, for example, Okada, Chiaki and Kevin Young (2012) “Sport and social development: Promise and caution from an incipient Cambodian football league”, International Review for the Sociology of Sport, vol. 47, no. 1, pp. 5-26.

(4) Platini was flown into Afghanistan with special landing permission (obtained only in the dead of the night before) for a few hours on 22 September 2013. He came in a private plane owned by Rovnag Abdullayev, who is also president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) – the main source of income of the Azerbaijani government – and of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA). The ties between the Afghan and Azerbaijani governments have recently been growing stronger, extending now even to sports (read this author’s previous AAN dispatch on Afghanistan-focussed regional co-operation here).

(4) The 32 teams in the 14-year-old boys’ tournament include, as arranged by the AFF:

1. Yaran-e Hamed

2. Saheb-ul-Rahman

3. Rasul-e Shahid

4. Erfan

5. Ayandasazan-e Chendawul

6. Nawjawanan-e Karte-ye Aryana

7. Ashiana

8. Shamshad

9. Kabul Club

10. Hindu Kush-e Shamal

11. Akademi-ye Omumi-ye Ettehad

12. Fedrasiyun

13. Yawar

14. Setara-ye Sorkh

15. Pamir

16. Ettehadiya-ye Takhnikaran

17. Mokhaberat

18. Fajr-e Afghan

19. Ettefaq

20. Mojtama-ye Shahid Mazari

21. Tolo Travel Agency

22. Kamel

23. Pas

24. Azzahra

25. Da’wat

26. Ordu

27. Mu’ud-e Kawsar

28. Omid-e Akhgar

29. Yaran-e Yama

30. Omid-e Afghan

31. Arman-e Nabuwwat

32. Jawanan-e Morad Khani

(5) Author’s interview with the team’s coach, Mohammad Issa Zahed, 25 December 2013, Kabul

(6) Juan Marcos Troia has worked as grassroots football trainer in India (in Delhi among the Afghan diaspora and in the India-administered Kashmir) before coming to Afghanistan. He has been introduced to the AFF through the India-based Afghan diaspora community. He and his family (wife and three daughters) currently live in Kabul. Source: Interview, 22 December 2013, Kabul

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