It was right and proper that it made headlines around the world but the wording was not quite correct.
Afghanistan’s triumph in the 2013 South Asian Cup was, of course, a huge success that should be hailed everywhere.
Thousands of fans in Kabul poured onto the streets to hail the win in a rare moment of genuine national pride after years of war. The sound of gunfire echoed along with the cheers but they had better get used to celebrating football victories, Afghanistan are changing the balance of football power in South Asia.
But a shock? The 2-0 win over India in the final in Kathmandu was nothing of the sort. This was no lucky or surprise win. It was well-deserved and not unexpected.
Two years ago, perhaps it was a little different. There was some surprise to see Afghanistan in the final in 2011 when they lost 4-0 to the hosts in New Delhi. Yet that result does not tell the full story of how, with the scoreline goalless midway through the second half, the referee harshly sent off the Afghan goalkeeper Hameedullah Yousefzari and awarded India a penalty and changed the game completely.
Afghanistan entered the 2013 version as second favourites, only slightly behind holders India, a country that had won six of the nine editions to date. But with the boys in blue lacklustre and short of ideas from start to finish, the Lions of Khorasan stepped up.
“Afghanistan were a strong organised side,” Pakistan star Zesh Rehman told Al Jazeera.
won because they displayed a lot of courage and hunger, football for these guys is a privilege and a welcome break from their daily troubles and turmoil”]
“They defended well and played with good intensity and aggression. I was not completely surprised they won because they displayed a lot of courage and hunger, football for these guys is a privilege and a welcome break from their daily troubles and turmoil.”
The former Fulham star is not yet convinced that the team are a powerhouse in the region but acknowledges that the future could be bright.
“On this showing they have the potential to be [a force in South Asia]. At South Asian level there is very little between the majority of the teams, the ones who can get the lead and take the chances generally win. Pakistan can learn from them in terms of being more clinical in front of goal.”
FIFA’s rankings have the team as the strongest in South Asia and at least in this regard, the world governing body is correct (132 at the time of writing, 19 in Asia).
“Afghanistan were the best team in the tournament,” said Biplav Gautam, former official at the Asian Football Confederation and now an Asian football journalist.
“They are a very mature footballing side that does not get rattled. That is what sets them apart from the other South Asian teams. They seem to have a lot of mental strength. Also they have quite a few European based players who probably have a more professional approach to the game.”
The Afghan diaspora has proven to be a real boon for the team. Since the 2011 final, there have been times when the national team coach has summoned as many as eleven from European leagues – others are active from the United States and India.
The European-based stars may not exactly be playing for the big clubs in the big leagues but have a good deal of valuable experience. Tournament MVP Mansur Faqiryar conceded just one goal in 450 minutes of football and is now back in the German fourth division with VfB Oldenburg. Sandjar Ahmadi scored the second goal in the 2-0 final win over India and plays in regional German leagues.
In addition, the Afghanistan Football Federation has invested as much as possible in youth football and development of young players. It has not always been easy. It wasn’t long ago that stadiums were used by the Taliban for executions and then the local leagues were amateur, short on facilities and very short of cash.
Matters are improving and the growing success of the national team can only help more of the country’s youth to fall in love with the beautiful game. The Afghan Premier League was set up as part of a television reality show but is bringing professional football to the country for a second successive year.
The next prize is the biggest yet – securing a place at the 2015 Asian Cup due to be held in Australia. The traditional qualification route is not an option but there is another way. If the team can win the 2014 version of the AFC Challenge Cup, a tournament reserved for ‘developing nations’, then a place down under at the continent’s flagship event is assured. Afghanistan are certainly capable of doing so.
Guplav envisages a time when Afghanistan will become the first South Asian team to break out of the region. “Not only will they be a force, they have a chance at separating themselves from the pack. I believe in the coming years they will come to resemble West Asian teams like Iraq and Jordan.”
High praise indeed. Afghanistan at the World Cup? It is not going to happen soon but this is a country, in football terms at least, that is going places.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for over a decade and writes about Asian football for a variety of international and local media including ESPN, Associated Press, The Guardian, 442, New York Times, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated & International Herald Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @johnnyduerden