Sport in Afghanistan - especially cricket, football and rugby - has been gaining popularity and growing at a phenomenal rate since the fall of the Taliban rule.
Individuals barred from taking part in sporting activity are now representing the country at the highest level and bringing home laurels unimagined a decade ago, with a refusal to look back and a glint in the eye.
Last year was an astonishing one for Afghanistan sports. In September, the football team beat India 2-0 in the South Asian Football Federation Championship final to lift its first major trophy. At the 2014 Ballon d’Or ceremony, the Afghanistan Football Federation received the FIFA Fairplay Award for its work on developing grass-root football, building infrastructure and nurturing a professional league (Watch FIFA's Youtube video).
In cricket, already part of the 2014 World Twenty20 furniture, Afghanistan made history by defeating Kenya and qualifying for the 2015 World Cup for the first time. The win, and the qualification, sparked scenes of celebrations throughout the nation. More than 24,000 cricket fans gathered peacefully in Khost province to welcome their sporting heroes upon their return.
“Cricket in Afghanistan is more than a game, it is a tool for national unity and hope for the youth,” Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) CEO Noor Muhammad Murad told Al Jazeera. “Qualifying for the World Cup will give us a new sporting identity and we can prove we are a talented nation. Our aim is not associate membership but full ICC membership.”
If any statement could capture why Afghanistan sport is flourishing, that probably is it.
Cricket became popular among Afghan refugees in Pakistan during Taliban rule and it was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, where the cricket federation was born. The conservative attire and manner of the game helped convince the Taliban to accept it in 2000, a year before allied troops arrived. Cricket has certainly made the most of its head start.
While Afghanistan is a huge nation punctuated by clans and tribes, when a cricket bat or football is thrown into the mix, divisions are marked only by the team you fall on. Due to this, the CEO of the Afghanistan Rugby Federation (ARF), Asad Ziar, told Al Jazeera that there are no limits to what sport can achieve in the country.
There are no dangerous areas when it comes to spreading sport
“Its intrinsic values such as teamwork, fairness, discipline and respect are understood all over the world and can be utilised in the advancement of solidarity and social cohesion,” Ziar said. “There are no dangerous areas when it comes to spreading sport. In fact, there is no sect or groups against the development of sports in any part of the country.”
The ARF was launched in 2011 so rugby remains one of the youngest sports. However, Ziar and his colleagues have already achieved a lot. At the 2013 West Asia Rugby Sevens in Dubai, Afghanistan beat UAE and Lebanon. In a nation where travel is unfamiliar and difficult for many of its inhabitants, organising the trip to Dubai for his players was an impressive feat alone.
“I received hundreds of text messages and emails and people approached me via social media from all over the globe and that was a proud moment. We got the runners-up shield in that tournament and it was the first international victory by an Afghan team in the field of rugby.”
In addition to developing the national team and spreading the word of rugby, Ziar and the ARF have taken the bold decision of introducing the sport to girls. Last June, Ziar gathered 600 girls at a Kabul school and distributed leaflets about rugby before providing some introductory sessions.
Unsurprisingly, the cultural complications when it comes to developing women’s sport are a minefield.
“Promoting women’s rugby requires a lot more from us. There are no private grounds and it’s impossible for women to train in public. We need secured and proper facilities for the development of women’s rugby. When we have these facilities we will start working on the development of a women’s team.”
Afghanistan has a women’s cricket and football team and most of the players draw from the capital Kabul where there is a more liberal attitude towards women. One woman who has played a vital part in encouraging others to pick up bat and ball is Diana Barakzai, the national captain and also a qualified ICC coach and the Women Cricket Development Manager at the ACB.
“I got into cricket in 2009 because I wanted to bring Afghan women into the structure of cricket and sports,” Barakzai said. “From what I can see, the future of cricket is quite bright here.”
Sport in schools
Another exciting development for Afghan sport is the planned introduction of cricket onto the school curriculum. If the Ministry of Education approves the new programme, the training of school teachers will start this April.
Physically strong and competitive-minded, there is no shortage of sporting talent in Afghanistan. However, the nation struggles from a lack of qualified coaches and sporting expertise, according to Ziar, which is holding them back.
|Getting women involved in sport remains Afghanistan's main aim [GALLO/GETTY]
“The international sporting community has always helped the development of sport in Afghanistan but we are yet to witness an Afghan with a degree in the field of sport or sport development. I think for long-term development and strategies, we need some professionals.”
Considering the absence of sport from educational institutions while the war raged on, it is remarkable how far Afghanistan sport has come over the last few years.
NATO troops leave the country next year and hopefully sport, together with peace and democracy, can blossom.
“I don’t make judgments about an individual’s participation in the war but I hope to encourage youth to do something positive, fun and competitive. This will help them stay away from violence and drugs,” Ziar added.
“If the international community as a whole want peace and stability in Afghanistan, they must support the development of sport.”