Afghanistan embrace new dawn

In a fairly quiet month during which only seven international 'A' matches were played across the globe, Afghanistan stole the show as they soared ten places up May's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, which elevated them to 164th - a personal high since the introduction of the global ladder in 1993.

It may come as little surprise that nations like Afghanistan can leave an occasional mark on the world's pecking order. However, it is the Central Asians’ continuous progress that has raised eyebrows, with their latest climb following a 21-place leap in April.

Their excellent performance during the recent qualifying campaign for the AFC Challenge Cup 2012 was the driving force as they emerged as Asia's best movers over the past two months. Having featured in the competition's first two editions, in 2006 and 2008, the Afghans began their bid for a third continental appearance brightly, firing five unanswered goals past Bhutan over two legs (3-0 and 2-0) in March's play-off. The sweeping triumph left them with a double reward: a place in the next qualifying stage and a double-digit rise on May's Ranking.

Afghanistan’s hopes of reaching the Asian finals were, however, crushed in the ensuing group campaign. The failure began with a solitary-goal defeat by Nepal and although they overcame Sri Lanka by an identical scoreline, a 2-0 loss to section winners Korea DPR meant Nepal progressed at their expense.

Renewed passion
Football has long been the dominant sport in the landlocked and mountainous country, with Afghanistan affiliated to FIFA as early as 1948. Despite the political turmoil over the past decades, recent years have seen the nation embark on rebuilding with renewed passion and courtesy of FIFA's support through the Goal Project.

The progress they have made is admirable. Two successful qualifications for the AFC Challenge Cup were coupled by another two appearances in Asian Zone qualifying for the past two FIFA World Cups™. Although an international breakthrough has yet to be made, the positive signs are not missing.

They came up with two impressive draws with Philippines and Chinese Taipei during their maiden AFC Challenge Cup, before coming close to stunning Syria in a qualifier for South Africa 2010, ultimately losing 2-1. Moreover, they upset the Tajikistan U-23 side with a 1-0 success in a friendly last November. 

"Largely due to FIFA's assistance, football is developing and making great progress in our country," Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) President Karim Keramuddin remarked during his visit to the Home of FIFA in January of 2008. "FIFA's Goal project is extremely beneficial in this respect. With FIFA's help, we want to continue this positive development as well as we possibly can."

In the process of their progress, a series of talented youngsters have come up through the ranks, with home-grown striker Sidiq Walizada the most notable courtesy of his hat-trick against Bhutan. Leading their overseas-based charges is Altona 93 forward Mustafa Hadid, who scored the only goal against Sri Lanka, while providing the drive from the midfield is the creative Israfeel Kohistani.

Topping their agenda list this year is a two-legged meeting with Palestine in Asia's first qualifying round for Brazil 2014 this June, and blessed with these hopefuls and boosted by their recent progress, Afghanistan are expecting to mount a serious challenge this time around.