Sports for Peace
Given that Afghanistan was embroiled in a never-ending war, it is remarkable how sports have flourished in the country.
It is remarkable how sports have flourished in the country which is embroiled in a never-ending war.
Even though Afghanistan shares its borders with cricket-obsessed Pakistan, the country does not have a long-standing tradition of its own in some of the more popular sports. It was only after the fall of the Taliban that sports gained popularity in Afghanistan and started growing at a phenomenal rate.
It wasn’t too long ago that athletes from Afghanistan were barred from taking part in international sport events. Today, the same athletes can be seen representing the country and winning accolades that was inconceivable for the Afghans about a decade ago. For Afghan athletes and indeed sports enthusiasts in the country, the games of choice include cricket, rugby and football. In fact, in September 2013, the Afghan football team beat India 2-0 in the South Asian Football Federation Championship final and brought home the trophy. In 2014 FIFA acknowledged the Afghan Football Federation’s (AFF) stellar work in developing grass roots football, building infrastructure and training a professional league. It awarded AFF the FIFA Fairplay Award.
That is not all. Afghanistan has also made strides in cricket. It made history by defeating Kenya (in the Twenty20 World Cup 2014) and qualified for the World Cup 2015 for the first time ever. The team was given a hearty welcome on its return. According to Noor Mohammad Murad, the CEO of the Afghan Cricket Board, the achievement has given Afghan cricket a new lease on life, a new sporting identity if you will. The goal, he adds, is now to acquire full ICC membership. Meanwhile, provincial cricket teams compete against one another at the national level, which has helped bring a sense of unity in the country.
The game, however, has been popular for a long time. Afghan refugees living in Pakistan developed a liking for cricket and it was in 2000 that the Taliban finally accepted the game,
By Samina Wahid exactly a year before the allied troops arrived. Despite the fact that the country is divided on the basis of clans and tribes, a cricket or football tournament brings the nation together every time. “Its intrinsic values, such as teamwork, fairness, discipline and respect, are understood all over the world and can be utilized in the advancement of solidarity and social cohesion,” explains Asad Ziar, the CEO of the Afghanistan Rugby Federation (ARF). “There are no dangerous areas when it comes to spreading sport. In fact, no sect or group is against the development of sports in any part of the country,” he says. The ARF was launched in 2011, making rugby perhaps the youngest sport in Afghan history. Since then, the game has made great strides. For instance, in 2013, Afghanistan beat the U.A.E. and Lebanon in the West Asia Rugby Sevens held in Dubai.
Ziar can also be credited with introducing rugby played by girls. In June 2013, he gathered 600 girls at a Kabul school and distributed leaflets about rugby before kick-starting
introductory rugby sessions. That in itself was an uphill task. Given cultural restrictions on women in Afghanistan, promoting female rugby in the country was a challenge, to say the least. For starters, there were no private grounds for women and it was impossible for them to train in public. Although the situation has improved considerably, there is still the need for secure and proper facilities to develop the sport. Ziar says that once these facilities are available, the ARF will work towards establishing a female rugby team.
Interestingly enough, Afghanistan does have women’s cricket and football teams. Most players in the two teams hail from Kabul where the overall mindset towards women is more liberal than the rest of the country. It is, however, the endeavors of Diana Barakzai – the national cricket team captain and a qualified ICC coach – that have paid off. Diana, who got involved with women’s cricket in 2009, says that she sees a bright future for women’s cricket in the country. She believes that it is important to bring in women into the sports structure of cricket and sports in order to put Afghan sportswomen on the map.
Other cricket-related developments are also in the offing. In 2014, the Ministry of Education reportedly approved the inclusion of cricket in the school curriculum and teacher training began in April 2014. But the training is nothing short of a challenge. ge. While the Afghan ghan people are competitive, physically lly active and skilled sportsmen, men, there is an acute dearth of qualified coaches and sports expertise which, according to Ziar, is a setback. “The international sporting community has always helped the development of sports in Afghanistan but we are yet to witness an Afghan with a degree in a sport or sport development. I think for long-term development and strategies, we need some professionals,” he said in an interview to Al Jazeera.
What the country needs now, besides trained professionals, is the infrastructure that supports sporting activities. Most football stadiums, for instance, were constructed in the major cities during the 1970s and have not been upgraded or maintained over the years. Many lack modern seating arrangements or the facilities needed for training sessions. Cricket stadiums are also few and far between as are gymnasiums that can be used by different t teams. Currently, ly, there is only the e Olympic Committee mittee Gymnasiumsium in Kabul.
Givenen that Afghanistan nistan was embroiled broiled in a seeminglymingly never-endingnding war not too long ago, it t is remarkable to note how far sports in the country have come in the last few years. The departure of NATO troops will hopefully give a much-needed boost to sports in the country, explains Ziar. It will provide the youth with something constructive to do and may just help them stay away from drugs and violence.
The international community should step up the task and encourage the development of sports in the country. After all, they have as much to gain as the Afghans from promoting peace and stability in the region and sport is perhaps one of the best ways to do it. The writer is a freelance journalist who contributes regularly to various leading