For three decades, Afghanistan was wracked by war and ethnic struggles. Football also suffered during this awful period and was even banned at one point. A passion for the beautiful game has been reignited throughout the country, however, and it has even managed to promote peace in a war-torn land.
Football is finally being played again in the hard-hit central Asian republic, with a national league actually being created and enjoying a successful first season. Eight teams from as many different regions took part in the newly-founded Afghan Premier League (APL), with the final – held in a packed stadium in Kabul in front of almost 5,000 fans – seeing Toofan Harirod defeat Simorgh Alborz 2-1 to win the inaugural title.
One of the driving forces behind the league is Ali Askar Lali, a former Afghan international who in 1981 arrived as a refugee in Germany. There he went on to play for and coach a number of teams before heading home to help bring about the re-birth of football and the founding of the APL. FIFA.com spoke with him about his hopes for the future of football in Afghanistan.
FIFA.com: What are your current occupations?
Ali Askar Lali: I work for FIFA on grassroots projects, mostly in Afghanistan. I'm also a technical adviser to the Afghanistan Football Association as well as working for the German Football Association in Afghanistan and in other countries. I train coaches, put in place structures and look after a lot of other things besides.
What are the most important current projects in Afghanistan?
There are two of them: one is the formation of a professional league, the other is creating the basis for teams to exist. This means that we are investing a lot in the grass roots – not just in Kabul but in plenty of other provinces besides. These two focuses are of great importance at the moment.
What did you think of the Afghan Premier League's first season?
It was a great success in many respects. We demonstrated that we can play and organise good football. The league brought us closer to a lot of people in Afghanistan. Around 16 million people – over half of the population – followed the championship, which means that we managed to bring football into people's homes and get families interested in the game. At the season finale, we saw just how enthusiastic young people had become for football. We've succeeded in projecting a peace-loving image of Afghanistan. Most people only know the country in connection with struggles, war, arms and drugs, and we have managed to show them another side to Afghanistan. Even within the country we managed to show unity and bring all ethnic groups together. They played together and had fun together.
What are your aims for the coming years?
The Premier League was a big step forward and we want to build on that. We need to make further improvements to the organisation – the league doesn't have any structures at the moment and we want to build those up. The clubs also need to be developed more. We organised the league using existing structures and brought teams together from eight regional zones, and the next step is to organise an open league. These are aims that we are going to pursue, even if the road ahead is a long one. We've got off to a good start and therefore we're optimistic that in five or six years' time, we'll have a good league.
Which would have a corresponding effect on the Afghanistan national team…
The stronger the league, the better the national team will obviously be. It's the flagship of any country. After all the years of conflict, I want to see Afghanistan present itself as a unit, as a united nation, and the national team is a very good means of achieving this. A strong national team would be good for the whole population.
How are things looking for women's football?
Tradition dictates that this will be a rockier road. We first established women's football here in Afghanistan in 2003 or 2004. It was a tough job but we've managed to create teams in larger cities like Kabul and get clubs interested in supporting women's football. We have competitions for women's teams as well as organising an Afghan women's select team to take part in international tournaments. It was a long road but we've definitely taken the first few steps along it. We've made people more aware of women's football, for example by trying to show some women's football in between league matches. We also invited the women's international team to a league match and introduced them to the crowd after they had beaten Pakistan 4-1. People didn't know much about women's football before that, but after they found out that the Afghan team had beaten our arch rivals, they were proud of them. I think that we're on the right track when it comes to developing and supporting women's football in major cities in Afghanistan. In five to ten years, we will hopefully be doing the same in the provinces.
Could it be said that football in Afghanistan has brought the country together after all these years of war?
You could put it like that. For years we've been saying that Afghanistan can do so much with so little resources. Football is an incredible tool when it comes to steering young people away from arms, violence and drugs. The Premier League made a connection with lots of youngsters, showed them that football can open their horizons and that it is a sport that they can feel at home with. Football can achieve great things with modest means.
As part of the FIFA Goal Project, an artificial pitch has been built in Kabul which will have league matches played on it. How important is this development?
The Goal Project was the greatest step towards independence that our national association has taken, as it put them in a situation to be able to organise an event without outside influences from other organisations in Afghanistan. In a country like ours, there are plenty of bodies that want to exert an influence on football, but thanks to the Goal Project, we have been able to be independent enough up until now to organise events ourselves. And it's not just football matches – we can also train our coaches and officials as well as our youth players. The Goal Project really was a big thing for us. We would have liked some extra support, for example from our government, since we're short on capacity; we're short of people who can work out on the pitch, like coaches, referees and event organisers. We need people who understand how to implement structures for a league and for clubs. This is the capacity that we currently don't have in Afghanistan. We need to improve the infrastructure so that we ourselves can become more active in all the provinces.
You personally are a legend of Afghanistan football. Does that help when you are trying to motivate other people and partners?
I've earned a lot of respect as a former international who has come back to Afghanistan to help build up football in the country. Not many people have returned home out of exile. People can see that I'm committed to football, and that puts me in a position to open doors when it comes to sponsors and projects.