Shaheen Asmayee will become the first Afghan club at an AFC event, but life was not simple for the players growing, writes Paul Williams.
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.
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.”
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.
But things 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.
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.”
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.” – Al-Jazeera