Violence To Victory: The Rise of Afghan Football

Afghanistan, a country torn apart by war in the last 25 years, where the national football team went 18 years without playing a professional game and players in the Afghan Premier league were chosen on a reality TV show.

The Afghan Premier League (APL) began in 2012, the same year that NATO announced the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. There are only eight teams in the league and each team plays 18 matches in a period of three months starting in September. What makes the league unique, though, is that all the matches are played in the same city, the capital, Kabul.

This is because of the continued presence of the Taliban in the country and the low level of tolerance the terrorist group give football. This was at its worst from 1996-2001 when it was barely tolerated at all.

The group often carried out raids on games and executions at the half-time break, the blood was mopped up play continued. These executions occurred mainly in the Ghazi Stadium, the country’s national stadium in Kabul. The Taliban still have a large influence in Afghanistan so football is limited to two stadiums, both in the capital city.

The selection process for players in the league was an unusual one to say the least as they were all chosen, at first, through a reality TV show called ‘Maidan-E-Sabz’ (‘Green Field’). Players were voted into different teams by a jury and television audience, a bit like ‘The X Factor’ meets the transfer window.

Despite the war ending in 2014 the Afghan people are still suffering, but their football looks more promising than ever. The league has teams from different areas of the country and, subsequently, different ends of the political spectrum playing each other.

This, however, has not caused the problems you might expect. Last year’s final saw De Maiwand Atalan, a team from a Taliban-controlled area, play Shaheen Asmayee, a team from Kabul. The two teams merely playing each other is evidence in the case that football in Afghanistan has gone some way in uniting the Afghan people against the tyrannical terrorist group that has torn the country apart for decades.

In Afghanistan, every game is broadcast on two channels; that’s already more TV airtime than the Premier League. Two different radio stations also offer live commentary throughout the matches and if that is not enough the matches are also available on YouTube on the league’s page. Step up Premier League.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the 2016 final was watched by 57% of the potential TV audience. The league is bringing unity to a country in desperate need of it. Upon the creation of the league in 2012 the Afghan High Peace Council said that the APL was a great opportunity to bring “peace and stability” to the country.

The success of the league is also, in part, thanks to the level of funding received from FIFA, Japan, Germany and the UK. The money was used to improve pitches, add floodlights, and build the headquarters for the Afghan Football Federation. This has paid dividends as Shaheen Asmayee recently became the first Afghan team to play in the AFC Cup, their regional equivalent of the Europa League except teams want to take part.

The Afghan national team has also benefitted from the creation and subsequent success of the Afghan Premier League with the team winning the South Asian Football Championship in 2013. Before this they did not play a competitive international game between 1984-2002 due to the violence in the country. They managed to register their first win in almost 20 years in March 2003 beating Kyrgyzstan 2-1 in an Asian Cup qualifying match.

The beautiful game has not had an easy time in Afghanistan but it has continued to flourish since the creation of the league in 2012. It has had to take a backseat for a while but with the league being so successful and the national team already winning trophies, football in Afghanistan is here to stay.