When German overseas coach Klaus Stark brought his Afghan
women's national team to the Ruit Sports Academy outside
Stuttgart for a late-January training camp, he must have felt he
had entered a different world. "It's never happened to me
before, cameras everywhere and flashbulbs popping. I feel like
Joachim Low," he quipped as the media went into a frenzy over
the unusual visitors. Stark was far from alone in finding the
12-day stay a whole new experience.
For 18 young women, it was a long yearned-for opportunity to develop their football skills without a care in the world and away from the long shadow of terrorism. "We're here to show that football for girls should be regarded as normal in Afghanistan. And we want to prove there's another way of doing things. The girls love their football, and they want to live normal lives," the 54-year-old Stark told FIFA.com. "Our training camp here is ultimately intended as a symbol of peace."
'We're by no means done yet'
The situation could hardly be more different in Afghanistan, where playing for the women's national team is a genuinely risky business. "It could be stopped at any time. We hope the Taliban don't suddenly decide to ban our activities," says Stark, who long ago came to terms with the dangerous nature of his work in Kabul. "You do what has to be done," he declares. Understandably, all training sessions are held behind closed doors at the site occupied by the international peacekeeping force.
Stark's resolute endurance in an environment fraught with almost unimaginable difficulties is fuelled by deep-rooted idealism and seemingly boundless enthusiasm. "We're by no means done here yet," he revealed to FIFA.com. "The progress we're making in both structural and sporting terms is a daily motivation. It's a fabulous job. The reward is the look on the girls' faces when they're focused on the game, the sparkle in their eyes. Sometimes I just look at what's happening and find myself lost for words and choking back the emotion. They're very moving moments. We watched the girls enjoy every minute of their trip to Germany."
Developing structures and standards
Stark, one of around 30 German FA (DFB) overseas coaches, is now in his fifth year nurturing the grassroots in Afghanistan. Together with his partner Ali Asker Lali, an Afghan native who lived for 25 years in Germany, he has succeeded in awakening an extraordinary passion for women's football in the shadow of the Hindu Kush mountains, and has also begun establishing a structural framework for the game.
"We have fairly wide-ranging goals. We simply want to establish the game in Afghanistan. That involves training coaches and having a system of player passes, for example. We've attracted some 2,000 youngsters as active players," relates Stark with a touch of pride. An Afghan men's national team came into being three years ago. Office-based association duties are a daily necessity, but Stark feels the real priority lies elsewhere: "We must never lose sight of the roots."
Dream of international fixture
At the moment, the Afghan girls are acclimatising to the switch from a small-sized playing area to the full field of play, as eleven-a-side matches are impossible on the solitary reduced-size pitch available in Kabul, another reason the stay at the Ruit Sports Academy was so valuable. "But there's much more to it than that" explained Stark, offering specific thanks to FIFA, the German Foreign Ministry, The German Olympic Federation and the DFB for their continuing support. "It was a chance for the girls to see and absorb a different culture. And it was about raising awareness and sending out a signal, so the media interest was vital."
"My work here may finish for the time being at the end of the year, as we may hand over the project in its entirety to the local association. We'd then come back in two or three years and see what's happened," Stark said, although he retains lofty ambitions for his remaining time in the country. "Our dream is to stage an official international fixture involving our girls."
Perhaps Saudi Arabia could provide the opposition. After all, a short time ago, Prince Mohammad-bin-Fahd University and Al-Yamamah College contested the nation's first-ever women's fixture.