As troops exit, Britain aids football in Afghanistan

Balls are replacing bullets as Britain shares its sporting expertise with Afghanistan to use football as a force to foster national unity

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The paths that took Wayne Rooney and Islamuddin Amiri into football couldn’t have been more different.

When a 9-year-old Rooney was catching the eye of talent spotters in Liverpool in 1995 and joining up with Premier League club Everton, Amiri was enduring hardship and horror under Taliban rule in Kabul, where Afghanistan’s national stadium was used for public executions and brutal punishments.

Almost two decades later, Rooney and Amiri met this month on a training field as footballing equals - as captains of their national teams.

“We talked about the experiences we shared,” the 24-year-old Amiri recalled. “He didn’t know if we’d know [of] them or not.”

British troops, who helped to topple the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, are preparing to end their combat role and leave Afghanistan by the end of the year. But balls are replacing bullets as Britain shares its sporting expertise with Afghanistan to use football as a force to foster national unity.

Elevating football standards was the purpose of Amiri traveling with an Afghan delegation to England to learn how to establish the type of infrastructure and coaching networks that led to Rooney getting an early break in the game.

“Hopefully we work together and we achieve something together,” Amiri told The Associated Press. “I learned from [Rooney] how to become a big captain of the England national team, a top team in the world. He shared the experience about how he is handling the pressure of being captain.”

That pressure comes from England’s failure to collect any trophy since the 1966 World Cup. In that aspect, Amiri had the upper hand on the 28-year-old Rooney when they met on the field at St. George’s Park, England’s training base. It’s just a year since Amiri lifted a trophy as Afghanistan captain.

“In the last [48] years England hasn’t won anything, but Afghanistan won the South [Asian] Championship – a big achievement for us,” Amiri said, beaming at the memory of the 2013 victory over India in Kathmandu.

Since the end of Taliban rule, there has been a resurgence of sport in Afghanistan – predominantly cricket – after being banned when the Islamist movement took power in the 1990s.

“It was very difficult playing football under the Taliban. You couldn’t wear shorts, you had to cover your full body to play,” Amiri recalled.

Just months after NATO forces liberated Kabul in 2001, the Ghazi Olympic Stadium, previously used by the Taliban to execute those who contravened their harsh laws, hosted a match between the British-led International Security Assistance Force and a local team in front of 30,000 fans.

“When you grow up seeing people cutting legs, killing people in the national stadium it is something different in your mind,” Amiri said. “But now when you are going to the national stadium you are enjoying the football, music. This is the big difference between the Taliban time and now.”

Afghanistan is still repelling a Taliban insurgency, but there are signs of a brighter future. While football can offer hope to a new generation, facilities at the grassroots need enhancing.

“In England when they are young, they are seen by scouts, they are going to academies,” Amiri said. “In Afghanistan you are just playing in the streets.”

Even if players are picked up by a team, they enjoy none of the riches enjoyed by Rooney and his Manchester United teammates.

“It’s very difficult for some players who are working during the day and in the evening they are coming for practice,” Amiri said. “In your mind you are thinking, ‘What should I do? How I can I earn money? How can I give to my family?’ It’s very difficult, but now slowly, slowly everything is going to change.”

Amiri impressed in the domestic league and was able to make the move to India in 2011, initially to play in Mumbai and now for Goa’s Dempo SC. In the future, players could prosper in Afghanistan through the partnership with the English Football Association. It was launched on a visit to British troops at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province by Prime Minister David Cameron and former England striker Michael Owen, who hosted a training session for the visiting Afghans earlier this month at St. George’s Park.

“One of the players was saying they’ve only got one or two grass pitches in the whole of Afghanistan,” Owen said. “So I think it was a bit of an eye opener to see a dozen pitches all in the space of one facility.”

But progress is being made, with two professional leagues - the Afghan National League and the Kabul Premier League.

“Football really became a hope for the Afghanistan people,” Afghanistan Football Association general secretary Sayed Ali Reza Aghazadah said. “No matter what you believe and what is your background, everybody is trying to play football.”

As the footballing infrastructure is built up, the target is qualifying for the World Cup for the first time. Afghanistan, which didn’t play any international matches at all from 1984 to 2001 during the years of civil war and Taliban rule, has been steadily improving, rising to No. 129 in the FIFA rankings.

“We are just growing,” Amiri said. “Our target is now the 2022 World Cup. So we are just trying to achieve something. We can’t do it alone.”

Afghan boys play soccer in front of the ruins of Darulaman Palace in Kabul November 9, 2012. (File Phot: Reuters)

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