New pro soccer league grips Afghans
Updated: 2012-10-13 08:14
By Agence France-Presse in Kabul (China Daily)
Afghan soccer players fight for the ball during the first Afghan Premiere League game at the Afghanistan Football Federation stadium. Joris Fioriti / AFP
After more than 30 years of war, extremism and ethnic infighting, Afghans might at last have found something everyone can agree on - a passion for soccer.
The Afghan Premier League, the country's first fully professional competition, is reaching its climax, with the final next Friday, after a month of gripping the war-torn nation from the presidential palace to the ordinary worker.
Created from scratch by lovers of the beautiful game and given financial backing by some of Afghanistan's biggest companies, the league has burst into Afghan life with a mix of big ambitions and a little chaos.
If there were any doubts about fans' willingness to go to matches in a country where Taliban bombings have targeted large gatherings in the past, the first match on Sept 18 quickly dispelled them.
A huge crowd stormed the gates of the Afghan Football Federation stadium in Kabul, and police resorted to lashing out with their rifle butts to maintain order.
They all ended up getting inside, almost completely filling the ground's 3,500 seats to see Maiwand Atalan (Maiwand Heroes) dispatch Shaneen Asmayee (Asmayee Eagles) 3-1.
The faithful on the terraces were not the only ones to enjoy the match - all the league fixtures have been shown live on two channels, with commentary in Afghanistan's two main languages.
And the league's connection to television goes beyond live matches.
A reality show, Maidan Sabz (Green Field), let fans get involved in the selection process for their local team and turn Sunday soccer players into professionals - albeit modestly paid ones.
"The show got a fantastic reception. We had 3,000 to 4,000 candidates" for each of the eight teams representing the country's main areas, said producer Mokhtar Lashkari.
Viewers watched as the would-be stars raced in the mud, jumped with weights on their feet and were grilled by psychologists.
All the staples of reality TV were there. The tales of woe: "My dad wanted to be a (soccer player) but he never made it. I want to fight for his dream." The vacuous pep talks: "Up to now, you've played for yourselves. Now you're playing for the team." Even a sort of confessional, where players divulged their hopes and fears to the camera.
After seeing the players put through their paces, viewers voted by text message for the three players who should join the 15 chosen by coaches for each of the teams.
The lucky ones are from all ethnic groups, an important factor in a country where friction between different peoples has long been a cause of violence.
League commissioner Said Shafir Gawari said he was proud of what they had achieved in a country ravaged by more than 30 years of war and said the league offered hope for the future.
"A big portion of the Afghan population are young people under 25. We would like to show Afghans and the world that Afghans can play together in teams composed of different tribes," he said.
All the games are being played in Kabul to try to minimize the security risk, and the tournament has even had the blessing of the Taliban.
"In Kandahar, we had a filming going on. A high member of the insurgency came to the crew saying that they would not disturb the project as it's good for the country," said Chris McDonald, an adviser to the league.
(China Daily 10/13/2012 page6)