If there is any sport which can lift people in war-ravaged Afghanistan, it is football. That was reinforced in their opening qualifier for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, when their home tie against Syria was played at a neutral stadium in Mashhad, Iran for security reasons. Thousands of Afghan fans nonetheless made it to the stadium, cheering their team on, and not even a 6-0 win for the Syrians could dampen their fervent support.
It was no surprise, therefore, that the nation was in raptures just five days later when the team bounced back to win 1-0 away to Cambodia. It was a result which put their campaign back on track in a group that also features Japan and Singapore. Young midfielder Mustafa Zazai scored the only goal four minutes from time as Afghanistan sealed their first win in eight attempts in World Cup qualifying.
As Afghanistan captain Djelaluddin Sharityar told FIFA.com: "This is a milestone achievement for us as a team. It helps boost our confidence for the upcoming games. It is important for our fans, too. With football we can make our people forget about the difficulties facing them, and at least for 90 minutes our nation is united."
"Our performance was quite good," the 32-year-old defender added, reflecting on the match. "We were focused and dominated from start to finish. We produced 12 shots on goal, while the rivals had just two. We squandered loads of chances but I'm happy we won in the end."
*High hopes *
The feat provided fresh testament to the progress Afghanistan have made over the recent years. Having suffered five straight losses in qualifying for the past three World Cups, the landlocked country sealed their first point by drawing 1-1 with Palestine on the road to Brazil 2014. On the regional front, they defied all odds to lift the 2013 AFF Championship trophy before storming into the last four in last year's AFC Challenge Cup. On the domestic scene, meanwhile, the Afghan Premier League was formed in 2012 and features eight clubs.
"We Afghans love football," Sharityar said. "We are fanatics about football. Football is growing at a rapid pace these years. The local league is developing and many of us have become stars. We are recognised on streets and stopped for pictures. We are invited to shows and interviews on TV. Of course, that said, only peace can ensure the game's smooth development."
I want to play a World Cup qualifier on home soil in front of our own supporters.
Born in Afghanistan, Sharityar was forced by the civil war of the time to leave for Germany at the age of seven. He started playing football in his adopted country and was signed by Wolfsburg as a 15-year-old. Having continued to hone his skills with clubs in Germany, Cyprus and Bahrain, he was recruited into the national team in 2007. Now established as skipper, and with 22 international appearances behind him, Sharityar is hoping to help restore stability and peace in Afghanistan through football.
He said: "What's amazing is that we can put a smile back on the faces of our people by our performances on the pitch. Football brings people together. It brings hope. It brings joy. We can help educate the young generation through football. We can distance them from radicalism."
*German influence *
Among Asian teams, Afghanistan have one of the highest quotas of overseas-based players. As many as 18 from the current squad are plying the trade with European clubs, with eight based in Germany alone. Even coach Slaven Skeledzic is renowned for having coached the youth teams of several Bundesliga sides.
"Like Japan, Afghanistan have many players playing in Germany," explained Sharityar, who spent the last season with fourth-tier Schweinfurt 05. "This should be attributed to the big Afghan community there. Teams usually train longer and harder in Germany than in other countries. We have players from Netherlands, Sweden and USA, as well as Afghanistan, but the Germany-based players help the team a lot."
Sharityar also paid tribute to Skeledzic, who took over in February. "Things have been getting better since his appointment. He is a professional manager with plenty of experience. He has instilled his philosophy into the team and we have learned how to maintain our control and play beautiful football."
Awaiting Afghanistan next in September is a tough meeting with group favourites Japan in Tehran, with a trip to Singapore in store the following month. But despite these daunting tasks, Sharityar is intent on scaling new heights. "I have a dream that one day I can play in a packed stadium in the Afghan league," he concluded. "I also want to play a World Cup qualifier on home soil in front of our own supporters. Above all, I want to play with Afghanistan in a big event like the Asian Cup. That would be amazing."