Sports for Peace

Given that Afghanistan was em­broiled in a never-end­ing war, it is re­mark­able how sports have flour­ished in the coun­try.

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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

pub­li­ca­tions.

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