An impressive climb of 48 positions to 141 in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, a consistent increase in the amount of registered players, a newly created football league with teams from all regions of the country, and a wider recognition for women’s football stand out as the key features of Afghanistan’s promising football development.
While FIFA’s 2006 Big Count revealed that 19,781 players were officially registered in Afghanistan, the figure has more than doubled to 54,000, according to the records of the Afghan Football Federation (AFF).
The Afghan Premier League (APL) that kicked-off last season proved an immediate success. Eight teams from as many different regions took part, with the final – played in front of a capacity crowd of 5,000 fans at the AFF stadium in Kabul – seeing Toofan Harirod defeat Simorgh Alborz 2-1 to win the inaugural title. Live coverage of all matches on Afghanistan’s Tolo TV contributed to increase the league’s awareness around the country.
“Eight years ago Afghan football was almost dead," said AFF president Keramuddin Karim. "However, through strategic planning in the area of infrastructure we have been able to set up the basis for the future. FIFA’s first Goal project was fundamental since it provided us with an artificial pitch we are currently using for our league matches in Kabul. We have also invested in the construction of a 4,000 seater-stadium around the artificial pitch that is presently being extended to 6,000."
While security concerns mean that all league games are held in Kabul, the overall situation is improving. “Football is too popular among Afghans and we don’t see ourselves as targets of prospective attacks since attacking football would undermine the hearts and minds of our people,” adds Karim.
Encouraging signs of football’s cohesive power were recently seen in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar where up to 20,000 spectators attended single matches of the Zonal Tournament in a peaceful atmosphere.
Women's football on the move
Women’s football too has benefited from the start of the APL. “We have lately witnessed an increased amount of girls asking for opportunities to join football clubs," explained Afghanistan’s women’s national team captain Zahra Mahmoodi. "Although the standing of women’s football in our country has improved, there is still lot to do, particularly in the area of capacity building since we only have a single female coach with a C license and four international referees,”
Now, 224 women and girls are officially registered with the AFF in Kabul – a total of 16 clubs have opened their doors to female footballers in the capital with seven more in the rest of the country. An additional 60 players have recently joined active football in Helmand’s Sar-e-pol town, an area in which even schooling for girls is not self-evident.
Given the complex security situation around women’s football, matches involving female players are organised behind closed doors with family members as sole witnesses.
“Security is an issue, but we are thankful to media and the AFF for encouraging our families to let us play football," commented Mahmoodi. "Our objective is to build a powerful women’s national team to compete at an international level. We want to show the other face of Afghanistan to the world,”
FIFA is set to further support AFF in its long-term planning.
“Afghanistan is a remarkable case of football development," said FIFA’s Director Member Associations and Development, Thierry Regenass. "In spite of the difficult situation the country has been facing throughout the past years, we have noticed a concrete improvement in terms of organisation and participation. We aim at further supporting AFF, particularly in the areas of administration and IT”
During the past ten years, FIFA has invested $1.5 million USD in the opening of two Goal projects in Kabul: the installation of a football turf pitch at the AFF complex in Kabul, and the construction of the association’s headquarters.
“Football is in the blood of Afghan people and we at the AFF are convinced that it is the best platform to move our country forward," remarked 22-year-old AFF Secretary General Sayed Aghazada – the youngest person to hold such a position in a FIFA member association. "Our national team that recently played at the AFC Challenge Cup in Laos consisted of 13 local players and 12 others that make a living in Germany, USA and Iran. They are all happy to join the national team without asking for any payment. If we keep on working the same way, I am confident we can qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup™ in Qatar."