The enthusiasm for football is great in Afghanistan and stayed alive even under Taliban rule. Daud Rasool, Deputy Director British Council Afghanistan, walks us through a recent history and the transformational aspect of the Premier Skills programme on the lives of young Afghans.
On a sunny summer Friday afternoon in Kabul in 2000, I was among hundreds of Afghans watching the football match between Kabul and Kandahar teams at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul. All of a sudden, a group of Taliban entered the stadium and started to beat up people to go and do their prayers. The match stopped for 30 minutes and the football pitch changed into a prayer ground.
Football, contrary to many other banned fun activities and hobbies, was one of the most popular sports and was played all over the country even during Taliban government. The teams played nationally and regionally. After the collapse of Taliban rule, sport in general, but especially football, began to flourish and significant achievements in football were made both nationally and at international level.
Afghanistan Premier League: a recent history
One of the big achievements was last year’s establishment of the Afghanistan Premier League (APL), an initiative supported by FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation. The APL aims to sustain the development of football throughout the country, to strengthen national unity, community cohesion and a peaceful coexistence of all groups of society, especially Afghan youths.
Instantly, Afghanistan was hooked on the APL, with 12 million people watching the matches live on TV and online. Arguments over which team was better switched from Manchester United or Real Madrid to Toofan Harirood or Simorgh Alborz.
There is a long tradition of playing football in Afghanistan, despite the interruptions of war. The Afghan Football Federation was set up in 1933 and it joined FIFA in 1948; the national team played its first match against European opposition at the London Olympic Games in 1948, losing 6-0 to Luxembourg.
But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the ensuing civil war put an end to international football for more than two decades.
The Afghan national team eventually returned to the international arena in 2002, when they played South Korea in the Asian Games, losing 2-0.
Why football is not just football, especially in Afghanistan
This week, in Dubai, I have been watching two highly experienced Premier League coaches, Johnnie Garside from Everton and Mark Bright, the former Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace striker, now a UEFA qualified coach, put twenty Afghan coaches from across the country through their paces.
They are here as part of Premier Skills, a programme that, since 2007, has been using football to engage with and develop the skills of young people in 21 countries.
The Afghan coaches, including two female coaches who also play for our national team, will take their skills back to their clubs and communities for the 2013 APL season, which is especially important as the best players will be picked for next year’s Asian Federation Cup.
We want our Afghan teams to do well, but we place a lot of hope into these twenty coaches beyond purely technical achievement. Over the next three years of the Premier Skills programme in Afghanistan, we want them to grow into community leaders and develop their own projects.
The participants are not just doing set pieces and ‘offside traps’, but are developing as community football coaches at grassroots level with all that comes with it, i.e., tackling community issues such as health, disability, gender, inclusion and education.
Unlike competitive football coaching, Premier Skills is not about identifying and developing the best and excluding the rest. Here, the coaches are learning about how they might adapt sessions to involve everyone; what are the social and psychological skills required to be a leader and what are the responsibilities that go with it? How can they use their coaching expertise to inspire people to be better, on and off the football pitch?
I believe this programme will really support the success of the APL, and its impact around the country. I look forward to being able to go the matches this season again with my family, supporting my new club Shaheen Asmaye and enjoying the revival of Afghan football and our national pride in the Asian Cup next year. We’re all praying it doesn’t go to penalties!
Premier Skills is a programme of the Premier League and the British Council that uses football to engage with young people and develop their community leadership skills. Since 2007, the programme has benefited 2,300 grassroots coaches and referees who, in turn, have reached more than 400,000 young people in 21 countries across Asia, Africa and the Americas.