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Nov 24, 2012

Afghan star is rising

The shirt was a Dutch shade of orange and Robin Van Persie would have been proud. The marauding Munirulhaq Nadim burst through the middle twice in the Afghan Premier League semi-final in October to give Simorgh Alborz a 2-1 win over De Maiwand Atalan. That name translates as The Maiwand Heroes, a tribute to those who famously defeated the British at the Battle of Maiwand in 1880 (where Doctor Watson, companion of Sherlock Holmes was wounded).

Afghanistan has never been short of heroes, but these days the country is looking for a different kind to excite and engage a population weary of war. Earlier this year, millions tuned in to a new television show that started with a voice saying: "Messi, Ronaldo, Maradona, Pele" inviting anyone and everyone to pursue their dreams of becoming a football player. It ended with a nation on tenterhooks, sold-out stadiums and a new generation of football fans.

Unlike some of their better-known counterparts in Europe, the players in the Afghan Premier League may start on only $10 a day but it is a start and there is a future. The past 12 months have been some of the most exciting in Afghanistan football history with international success and a first ever national association football league. Fans around the country were delighted to have teams to support and football to watch; players had places to play and journalists, both foreign and local were able to write about something, anything, that did not involve, at least directly, the Taliban, protests, bombings or violence of any kind.

Foreign armies have often failed in attempts to conquer this country, blessed and cursed, but mostly cursed, with a strategic geographic location at the crossroads of Central, West and South Asia. But foreign television ideas seem to have taken hold much more easily. Reality TV is big in Afghanistan and you can guess what 'Afghan Star', now in its seventh year, is based on. Yet while shows like X-Factor, and variants thereof, have churned out a stream of blandness across the world , in Afghanistan one television series has produced an entire football league to enthrall a nation. It may sound like a gimmick but tell that to the thousands of fans who travelled around a country that is not always easy to negotiate in order to watch their new heroes in action.

While popular, football had not been a big part of life in the country for quite some time. From 1984 to 2001 under the Soviets and then the Taliban, there was no international football at all. The Taliban preferred to use Ghazi Stadium in Kabul for public executions.

Last December the arena was upgraded and reopened. It now reaches FIFA standards but while hosting any World Cup qualifiers is still some time away, Afghan football now has a home and it seems to have a future.

That ceremony capped a memorable year for Afghanistan football. OK, by then the national team was already out of the running to qualify for the 2014 World Cup after losing to Palestine in June 2011 - the home leg of which took place in the Tajik city of Tursunzoda - but that was expected.

What was not was the success later in the year. Afghanistan was the story of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup in December. Topping their group above hosts India, the team then squeezed past a Nepal side led by former Spurs man Graham Roberts in the semi-final only to crash to a 4-0 defeat by India in Delhi in the final. It was nowhere near as easy as the scoreline suggests. The opening goal came via a harsh penalty for which the goalkeeper was sent off for protesting too much. Still, it was not bad for a team that had previously won just ten games in its history.

It was a momentous couple of weeks for Afghan football, though a car bomb in Kabul in the middle of the tournament killed more than 50 people, including relatives of squad member Mustafa Madar. A reminder, if any needed reminding, of the situation back home.

The lack of a genuine national league - the Kabul Premier League had been regarded as the top competition in the past - had been an impediment to progress. National team coaches called up players active in the lower tiers in the United States, Germany, India, Cyprus and Norway. The others tended to come from Kabul. The rest of the nation didn't get much of a look in.

That a professional league which involved the whole country was necessary was not in question. The issue was how to make it happen. Enter Roshan, Afghanistan's leading telecommunications provider and the backers of 'Afghan Star'. The league is actually called the Roshan Afghan Premier League. The highly successful company, regarded as a model for Afghan corporations, also has a long-standing relationship with TOLO TV and the show 'Green Field' was born.

The network organised trials for eight teams to be placed all around the country in large regional zones. The names were grandiose and evocative: Oqaban Hindukush, the Hindukush Eagles and the Shaheen Asmayee; the Falcon of Asmayee, a Kabul team, were to provide rallying points for fans.

All that was needed were players and they arrived in their thousands to be put through their paces. Sometimes it involved dribbling exercises, feats of strength and endurance or answering questions such as the distance from the penalty spot to the goalline. In the end, the experts narrowed the field and then the viewers did the rest. The successful ones found themselves with a team.

Fans found a league eager to engage - active on Facebook and Twitter with a slick homepage and fantastic YouTube channel - and they responded online and off. All the games were played over a two-month period at the same 5,000 capacity stadium in the capital and there was considerable demand. Some 10,000 turned up for the opening game and the final was a sellout again; an estimated one third of the total population tuned in on television.

In the end, not even Munirulhaq Nadim could inspire Simorgh to the title and it was Toofaan Harriod FC who became the first ever Afghan Premier League champions, while there is talk of the best being called up to represent their country. Simorgh will get another chance and perhaps the same can now be said of football in Afghanistan.

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