Abhishek Roy

Lions of Khorasan are roaring again


By Abhishek Roy | IANS – Sun, Dec 11, 2011 - New Delhi

Source: http://in.news.yahoo.com/lions-khorasan-roaring-again-103302366.html

Afghanistan, blighted by decades of violence and fundamentalist opposition to modern sports, is - unbeknownst to the outside world - emerging as a football power in the South Asian region. They looked the dominant force in the SAFF Cup and, irrespective of whether they win or lose, they have left a lasting impression on fans here.

The squad that came to India has a handful of players who have escaped from Afghanistan when the civil war broke out and returned only to represent as non-residents to turn out for “Lions of Khorasan” -- that's how the team is known in the post-Taliban era.

Chief coach Mohammad Yusuf Kargar, who has built the squad into a potent outfit recruiting players from under-20 level, recounts the dark difficult days. Almost a generation of players did not experience international football for over 15 years between 1984 and 2001. First the Soviet invasion disrupted the game and then the Taliban destroyed it.

Football was a no-no during the Taliban regime; the historic Ghazi Stadium in Kabul was turned into an arena for ruthless executions. When the rulers relented, the matches were allowed but were disrupted for saying prayers. Worse, footballers were detained for sporting long hair or clipping their beards short and playing in shorts. A Pakistani team was rounded up for not wearing trousers.

From those grisly days, the players are now enjoying their days under the sun. The country may be low down in the rankings, 178, but there is hope, there is cause for optimism because there is a system in operation. There are two tough leagues for players to come through the rungs -- a 32-team national league and a premier league in capital Kabul for a dozen teams.

'It was not the kind of resumption we were looking for in 2003. After forming the team we went to play some practice matches in Italy and nine players disappeared from there. It shamed the country, but the players can't be blamed for it. They had no choice because they had little to look forward to back home. The Taliban destroyed everything,' chief coach Mohammad Yusuf Kargar told IANS in an interview.

It took another year for the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) to cobble up a national squad.

Mercifully, the players feel, the frightening days are behind them. The squad was formed with limited resources and some players who fled the country.

'During the 1960s and the 70s we had a respectable team and also had a rich football tradition in the country. Problems started after the Soviet invasion and since then nothing went right for us. This is a fresh start for us and I hope everything goes right,' said Kargar, who led the national team for 13 years in the 80s.

In the last eight years, Afghanistan has tasted competitive football and made progress step by step; every turn was a learning curve for them. They finally came good this year -- winning six, losing three and drawing two of the 11 matches they have played. They gave a tough fight to 2010 World Cuppers North Korea before going down 2-0 during the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers. They won the silver medal in the 2010 SAFF Games.

Come to think of it, most of the overseas players playing for the country have little idea what's happening in their motherland; they have not seen the country. But their experience has benefited the others on the field.

While building the team for the SAFF Cup, Kargar made sure that he included eight-overseas players in the 20-member squad.

Haroon Fakhrudin plays for I-League club Mumbai FC while Yousef Samy (Bay Area Ambassodors), Mohammad Yusef Mashriqi (Brishna FC) and Ahmad Arash Hatifie (Afghan Premier) play in different divisions in the U.S.

Sandjar Ahmadi (SC Vier-und Marschlande) and Ata Yamrali (TSV Sasel) ply their trade in Hamburg state league in Germany while Djalaludin Shariatyar (Ethnikos Achnas) plays in first division club in Cyprus. The most experienced Belal Arezou is the leading striker of second division Norwegian club Asker.

'Some of the players were not even born in Afghanistan. Their parents fled during the Taliban era. But the love for Afghanistan always prompt them to come together whenever there is an international tournament. Before the SAFF Cup we had a 10-day camp in Dubai and I don't think they had any problems in adjusting with others,' said Kargar.

For Afghanistan, the 22-year-old Belal is the poster boy for the Afghans, a big hope.

'We were forced to flee Afghanistan. Today we have no option but to play in overseas leagues because we don't have a good professional league in Afghanistan. Our experience is helping the national team and that makes us proud,' he said.

Sandjar and Hatifie are the new faces in the side. Their parents fled during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

'We always want to play an international match in Kabul. It will be a huge step ahead for Afghanistan football. In the past we had a great team, but the Soviet invasion and the Taliban rule destroyed two generations of Afghanistan,' said Hatife, who plays for amateur side Afghan Premier comprising mostly immigrant Afghans in California.

Afghanistan is looking at a new football dawn

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