South Asian Cup success was well-deserved with the national team changing the balance of football power in the region.
In the football world that is increasingly dominated by an overpowering win-at-all-costs attitude, it’s refreshing to be reminded that, for some, simply participating is equal to winning.
Shaheen Asmayee Football Club, based in the Afghan capital of Kabul, will create history at the end of this month when it becomes the first Afghan side to participate in an Asian Football Confederation club competition.
The new format of the second-tier AFC Cup, which now splits the group stage into five regional zones, means that more clubs from more nations are now eligible to participate.
Shaheen Asmayee, the 2016 Afghan Premier League champions and one of the lowest ranked teams to enter the tournament, will enter at the preliminary stage when they play Tajikistan’s Khosilot in a two-leg play-off.
Few expect them to get beyond the first hurdle. But just competing in an AFC competition, and showcasing Afghan football, is reward enough for Shaheen Asmayee’s star attacker Amredin Sharifi.
“It’s exciting for us to participate in this tournament, because we have talented players in Afghanistan and the world doesn’t know about them,” the 24-year-old told Al Jazeera.
“This is important for us. We want to tell our people and government to invest in football and encourage the youth to play football.”
Being a footballer in Afghanistan is not like anything the majority of players around the world would have experienced or imagined.
Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said that football is not a matter of life and death, it is much more important.
For some, just playing football is a matter of life or death.
Hashmatullah Barakzai grew up in the northern Afghan province of Baghlan during the Taliban regime. Unlike some of those on the team, Barakzai has lived in Afghanistan all his life.
“Growing up amid the clashes and conflicts meant focusing on football was extremely hard for me,” Barakzai told Al Jazeera.
During the Taliban regime, things were very unpredictable and it wasn’t safe for anyone, especially for children. In order to play, I had to take my dad or grandfather with me to the ground to protect me.
“Even some of the matches had to be stopped at half-time because fighting in the close areas would break out all of a sudden. I was a child at the time and was scared whenever the fights started.”
There was suffering for Barakzai off the pitch as well, with money so sparse he often had to go without food, a situation that saw many of his friends and teammates simply give up their football dream.
“There were times when I kept exercising and playing football without having breakfast or lunch.”
Afghanistan football has enjoyed something of a purple patch in recent years.
The men’s national team won the South Asian Football Federation Championships in 2013 and followed that up with a second-place finish in 2015.
Sandwiched in between was a best-ever fourth-placed finish at the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament for Asia’s developing football nations.
Meanwhile, finishing fourth in their second round 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying group saw them advance directly to the third and final round of qualifying for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, avoiding a difficult play-off round in the process.
But thing have not been smooth off the field.
Former Afghan national team player Ali Askar Lali called representing his country a “feeling that can’t be described”. He was a member of the Afghanistan squad that made it to the quarter-finals of the 1977 AFC Youth Championships.
After the Soviet invasion in 1979, and the war that followed, Lali feared for his life.
“My life was in danger,” he said. “I was arrested twice. It was a miracle that I wasn’t killed.”
Lali, like millions of others from his country, was forced to flee Afghanistan. He first went to Iran, living there for nine months, before moving to Germany where he continued his football career at club level.
“I was a national player, I was a student and I had unfulfilled dreams when I was forced to leave my beloved country,” Lali said.
“It’s never easy to leave everything behind and to start afresh.”
Lali would never play for his country again. The same is sadly the case for many talented players who never made it to that level due circumstances beyond their control.
“A lot of players were forced to leave Afghanistan. Some of them disappeared without a trace. One of the best national players of Afghanistan, Hafiz Qadami, was reported to have drowned on the way to Australia.”
It is a harrowing story, and sadly one that is all-too-familiar in Afghanistan.
After being forced to give up his dream, Lali is determined to help the next generation of players so they don’t have to make the same sacrifices as he did.
Lali has quit his job in a development role with the Afghan Football Federation and will run for president in the federation election due to take place in April.
“The next election is a big challenge for Afghan football,” he told Al Jazeera shortly before heading to Kabul to continue his campaign.
“One of the reasons why I returned to Afghanistan was to pave the way for young men and women to play football. It is a fulfilment for me.”
Afghanistan’s rise in the football world has partially been down to the development of the Afghan Premier League, or APL, in 2012.
While the league is quite possibly the shortest in world football, running to only six matches for teams that make it to the final, its impact has been profound according to Zia Aria, the deputy commissioner of the APL.
“The APL has played an immense role in the development of football in Afghanistan,” Aria said.
“It has contributed to national unity among the Afghans. This season, we saw players from Herat, the western region of Afghanistan, go and play for De Spinghar Bazan, the team representing the eastern region of the country.
“These are the perfect examples of cohesion and positive social change that we were aiming to bring about through the APL.”
Setting the house in order
Lali, however, is not satisfied with how the APL functions.
“At the start, the APL created great enthusiasm and it is still the biggest football event here, but its negative influence marked the decline of all other clubs.
“The clubs are artificially created and only exist for four or five months a year. I had a clear agreement with the responsible people of the APL that in three years, it will be developed into a real league. After five years, I see no sign of that.”
Aria concedes that their expansion plans have been delayed due to the security situation in the country.
“It has been quite challenging given that we are in a war zone,” he explained.
“Security is the biggest challenge of all for us. It has caused our budget to soar tremendously as we have invested in our security resources and measures. It has significantly pulled us back on our expansion plans and has prevented a lot our grassroots programming out in the provinces.
“In addition, not everyone feels safe to come and watch the games in the stadiums, affecting our revenue that we could generate from our ticketing in the stadiums.
“But despite these mounting challenges, we have pushed forward and will keep pushing forward in order to keep the league and the hope alive.”
Shaheen Asmayee’s attacker Sharifi admits that while it will be difficult to be one of the 12 nations who advance from qualifying to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, it will not be through lack of effort.
“The other teams are well prepared. We have less facilities, but we will try and we trust in ourselves.”
Winning would be nice, he added, but it is not the most important thing for him.
“It’s a pleasure to put a smile on our people’s faces, because we live to make our people happy and proud.”