Afghans Welcome Back Soccer

APTwo Afghan men playing soccer near Kabul as a man pauses for prayer nearby.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Abdul Alim Kohistani led an army in the war against the Taliban. Now, the Afghan soccer tsar is leading fans back to stadiums not long ago used as execution grounds.

Sports were outlawed by the hardline Taliban rulers who declared games to be frivolous and non-Islamic. But since the ouster of the Taliban in November after the U.S.-led bombing campaign, soccer, volleyball and other sports have returned to the streets and stadiums of Afghanistan.

In Kabul, Kandahar and other big cities, the Taliban turned soccer stadiums into public execution grounds -- shooting people, hanging them from goal posts or chopping off their limbs for violating the strict Islamic laws in force at the time.

"We want to see these stadiums, which are soaked in blood, return to the players and fans," said Kohistani, the president of the Afghan Football Association. "We want children to kick balls instead of shooting guns or using drugs."

A small, dusty room inside Kabul's drab Olympic Stadium is covered in posters of English soccer teams Manchester United and Liverpool. Inside, young fans watch old videos of a soccer match, jumping from their seats and chanting as if it were being played live.

"Most Afghans love Manchester United, and there is a team in the north of the country that is called Small Manchester United," Kohistani said. "Most Afghans are in fact crazy about football."

A match earlier this year between international peacekeepers and a Kabul team illustrated the lust for soccer: Chaos erupted after some 60,000 fans tried to cram into the 30,000-seat Kabul stadium.

The Afghan Football Association was founded in 1933, and affiliated to the sport's ruling body, FIFA, in 1948. Afghanistan was a founding member of the Asian Football Confederation in 1953.

Afghanistan -- once considered an Asian soccer power -- stopped participating in Asian competitions and meetings after Soviet forces invaded in 1979. A year later, its soccer team for the 1980 Olympics collectively fled to Germany before reaching Moscow.

Those Afghan players were among the first to return to the country, helping to rebuild and promote a sport that is faced with serious financial difficulties.

Kohistani said that at a FIFA congress during last month's World Cup in South Korea and Japan -- where Afghanistan was readmitted as a member -- the world soccer body promised $250,000 for the reconstruction of stadiums and other soccer needs. It gave 100 balls and hundreds of sets of jerseys as help.

"We are trying to organize a league competition, but we have no money for teams to travel or stay in hotels or get food," Kohistani said. "President Hamid Karzai asked me why we lost 2-1 against the peacekeepers? I told him: Our players cannot afford to drink milk to be as strong as those foreigners."

"As far as the national team is concerned, most of our best players have died in wars, fled the country or just stopped playing," he added.

Despite more than two decades of war, soccer was played in some pockets not controlled by Taliban.

Kohistani -- an army commander in wars against the Soviets and the Taliban -- said that last year in the north, Taliban jets bombed a stadium while a soccer game was in progress, killing 16 players and fans.

"I showed video footage of the incident to FIFA delegates in South Korea, and some of them cried," he said.

Peter Velappan, general secretary of the 54-member Asian Football Confederation, said FIFA and the AFC want to get Afghanistan reintegrated into the international soccer community as soon as possible.

For the first time in years, Afghanistan will be represented at the AFC congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Aug. 14.