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Building Foundations: Football in Afghanistan | Part III

Football is truly a global game and the historical aspects of its growth in developing countries are quite fascinating. Phil Baki takes an in-depth look at the state of football in Afghanistan in this 3 part series. The first part focuses on its struggles in the 20th century and the second part throws light on the Afghan National Team. The third part discusses the country’s national football league.

Part III: : Fortifying Foundations – The Afghan Premier League

Not long after my meeting with the ANA lieutenant and our discussion of La Liga, my platoon and I headed out to a small Combat Outpost (COP) in a district near my main FOB. We were going to be supporting a mission out there but we arrived a couple days before the mission was scheduled to start. It was during this down time that I found out what “domestic football” means to most Afghans outside of Kabul. An interpreter from another unit on the COP came up to my platoon and asked if anyone wanted to play a pickup game of football. I had not played since I left El Paso, Texas in December, so I was eager to jump back on the field.

The teams evened out quickly. ANA on one side, some interpreters and some guys from my platoon on the other. And there, in the middle of the COP, on a patch of dirt surrounded by walls, barbed wire, and armored vehicles, we played football. It ended 3-1 in favor of the ANA, with yours truly scoring a wonderful headed goal (if I do say so myself) for our only tally. That did not really matter though. What mattered was that even there in the middle of Afghanistan, amidst mountains and desert, we could get away for a while and just enjoy playing a game we all love. But this exists everywhere, and Afghanistan is still building the true “domestic football” that we’ve come to expect in developed countries.

The first club football team to be founded was Mahmoudiyeh FC who played a season in what was then British India and enjoyed modest results, winning eight, losing nine and drawing one. The second was Ariana Kabul FC, founded in 1941. Its first season spanned only three games and was played in Iran. They won one of those while they lost the other two. In 1946, Afghanistan got its first taste of domestic club competition and launched the Kabul City League, now known as the Kabul Premier League. It is made up of twelve teams and all of the games are played at Ghazi Stadium as there are no other stadiums in Kabul. Ariana Kabul enjoyed huge success and won the first ten iterations of the league. From there, the record keeping falls off. From 1956 to 1994, there is no listing for the Kabul City Champions. So inconsistency reigned in the fledgling years of international and club football in Afghanistan. When the Russians invaded, all of this was lost. When the Taliban came to power, football was non-existent in the country.

In 2003, as security improved in the post-Taliban era, the records start up again and the Kabul City League along with them. That year it was won by the Red Crescent, the Muslim equivalent of the Red Cross. From there, Ordu Kabul FC began a four year run of titles from 2004 to 2007. In 2006, the Kabul City League became the Kabul Premier League with the stated purpose of “improving the national team”. The recognition that a strong domestic league would support their national team influenced the Football Federation of Afghanistan to press for more. The Kabul Premier League continued on and Kabul Bank FC, sponsored by the Afghan financial institution of the same name, began a run of titles that has lasted until 2013. However, the Football Federation recognized that it was not enough to just be cultivating talent out of Afghanistan’s capital. There had to be development across the country. The answer was the Afghan Premier League.

The Afghan Premier League

The Afghan Premier League

The Roshan Afghan Premier League, bearing the name of its corporate sponsor, the Afghan telecommunications company, was launched in 2012 with eight teams playing games in Kabul. The difference with this league from the Kabul Premier League was that each team represents a region of the country. The problem facing the league from the start was where the talent for the teams would be scouted as Afghanistan has no real youth or lower league structure. So to pull talent from all over Afghanistan, they came up with a novel idea.

Maidan e Sabz, which is Dari (a language akin to Farsi that is spoken throughout most of Afghanistan) for “Green Fields” was a reality TV show that aired in Afghanistan in advance of the launch of the Afghan Premier League. There were eight competitions held across Afghanistan where players competed to represent their region on their Premier League representative. A panel from the Football Federation whittled down a huge field of applicants in each region to the best 21. Then the audience voted by phone or internet for the best 18. That 18 would make up the team for that region. This essentially gave a series of Trial Days for the Football Federation to look at the footballing talent in their country which would have gone unnoticed otherwise. The players outside of Kabul got their first real chance and now are playing professionally with the chance that outside leagues may take notice.

There’s also a feeling within the league that it will promote national unity. Competition on the field will take the place of violent clashes between the various ethnic groups in the country. Abdul Sabor Walizada, who is a former player for the Afghan National Team, was involved with the show and had this to say, “It will create national unity because if the central zone, for example, has a really good player, the southern zone team will want to buy him,” he explained. “They will not care about his ethnicity. They will not care about his tribe. They will care that he is one of the best players”.

The first season of the Afghan Premier League was met with a huge amount of excitement from people all over the country. The league enjoys an agreement with TOLO, one of the largest TV stations in Afghanistan, as well as the ability to stream every game live on Youtube. This is fantastic as anyone with access to a TV or internet can watch, which grows in this country every day. In the end, Toofan Harirod FC (Harirod Storm) who represent the Western Afghan Province of Herat, won the league, defeating Simorgh Alborz FC (Alborz Swans), who hail from the Northeast Provinces near the Alborz Mountains, in the final.

Players from Toofan Harirod celebrated after scoring a goal in the opening minutes of the final match of the Afghan Premier League’s first season. Image Source: NY Times

Players from Toofan Harirod celebrated after scoring a goal in the opening minutes of the final match of the Afghan Premier League’s first season.
Image Source: NY Times

In 2014, Simorgh Alborz FC returned to the finals once again only to suffer the same fate, this time at the hands of Shaheen Asmayee FC, who represent the capital city of Kabul. Asmayee returned to the final the following season and were able to claim the title again, this time defeating Oqaban Hindukosh, who represent central Afghanistan. This year also marked the inaugural Nawroz Cup, which is essentially a league cup. Simorgh Alborz, 2 times runners-up, finally found silverware when they defeated powerhouse Asmayee in the final on penalties. The league is growing and if stability can return to the rest of the country, stadiums and more clubs should follow.

The team from near my area of operations during my deployment is De Maiwand Atalan (Maiwand Champions). They represent Kandahar Province. Maiwand is a district north of Kandahar City, the provincial capital, and it’s a place that is very famous to many Afghans. From the teams description on the official website:

Maiwand is a village north of Kandahar city, and is famous in Afghanistan because this is where great victory occurred where the Afghan forces defeated the British Empire in the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

The Battle of Maiwand, on 27 July 1880, saw the forces of Ayub Khan defeat the great British Army in a battle that demoralized the British at the time. The battle was not going well initially for the Afghans but the now legendary Malalai took up the flag and sang ‘”Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand, By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!”. Thereafter, despite Malalai’s own death at the battle, the Afghans were spurred to defeat the British at Maiwand.

So even when they are being sporting, Afghans are a people accustomed to war. However, with the help of the Afghan Premier League, things are looking up for the nation, who are building their sporting future in front of our eyes. Hopefully the animosity that exists can transform from ethnic or tribal lines to rivalries between teams. Now, De Maiwand Atalan may never be as popular as Barcelona, but hopefully the Premier League and the Afghan National Team can give this country and people like Johnny something to be proud of.

← PART 2

Written by Phil Baki

Philip Baki

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