Afew minutes into their Group A encounter against Sri Lanka at the South Asian Football Federation (Saff) Cup on Monday, a lapse in defence saw Afghanistan gifting the opening goal to the opposition. It upset the rhythm of the Afghan outfit.
“But then we pulled up our socks,” says Haroon Fakhrudin, the team’s captain. “And we all know what happened next.”
Big leap: Afghanistan’s Sanjar Ahmadi (in red) scoring against Sri Lanka on Monday. By Pradeep Gaur/Mint
It was Fakhrudin’s move that ignited the revival, the final pass slammed home by Sanjar Ahmadi from the edge of the 18-yard box. The goal hauled his team out of the hole it had slipped into, the reclaimed confidence reflecting in the final 3-1 scoreline, lending credence to the 1-1 draw against India in their opening match. On Wednesday, Afghanistan beat Bhutan 8-1 in their last group match to book a slot in the semi-final.
The Lions of Khorasan, as the Afghani team is known, has been assembled meticulously over the three years Mohammad Yousuf Kargar has been head coach. In 2009, he introduced eight players from the nation’s Under-23 squad into the senior team—the results evident in the silver medal at the 2010 South Asian Games in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“All players in the current team are under the age of 30,” says Kargar. “They are young, quick, strong and willing to learn.”
Although Afghanistan have been playing football since the 1920s, the sport took a severe jab during the Taliban regime from 1996-2001. Mohammed Mawlawei, the team’s manager, recalls players being forced to wear trousers and half sleeves on the field in the few non-professional matches held during those five years.
“In those years, Fifa and AFC (Asian Football Confederation) forgot about us completely,” says Kargar. An able skier and a footballer with the national team till 1984, Kargar remembers working at a factory in the vicinity of the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul during the Taliban years, in addition to coaching a local club. The stadium, a landmark in itself, witnessed bloody executions, sometimes during half-time in a game.
After the fall of the Taliban, the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) reassembled. It began organizing league matches in provinces across the country. Klaus Stärk, a German football coach, took over as the national coach in 2005 and began building a team. A rigorous process for player selection was set in place. In addition to the best players from the league matches, the management kept an eye on developments in countries like Germany and the US. Erstwhile members of the national team would keep them informed about talented players appearing for lower division clubs in these countries. The coaches would scrutinize their potential and induct them into football camps in Kabul.
There is no financial support from the government, but the team has garnered an official sponsor in Hummel, a Danish sports brand. Etisalat DB Telecom Pvt. Ltd, a GSM mobile service operator, facilitated coaching camps in Dubai; one was organized for the 10 days leading up to the Saff tournament.
“Few players actually manage to get by on the earnings from football,” says Mawlawei. “But some of them are earning regular salaries, as much as $300 (around Rs 15,420) per month, by turning out for local league sides in Kabul.”
Some players have government jobs, others run small businesses; the youngest are still studying. Six of the squad of 24 play for clubs in Germany, Norway and the US, while Fakhrudin, the captain, turns out for Mumbai FC in the I-League. The heady admixture injects a host of perspectives and styles into the national camps, bringing welcome variety.
Presently, Kargar has his sights set on the AFC Challenge Cup 2012, the winner of which receives automatic entry to the prestigious AFC Asian Cup.
“Our challenge has always been to improve as much in the years following 2001 as the Indian or Bangladeshi teams have in the last 30 years,” Kargar concludes.