Afghanistan targets regional football heights with German flair

KARACHI: When Ali Askar Lali fled Afghanistan for Germany as a refugee after the 1979 Russian invasion, little did he realise that one day he would go home to develop the world’s most popular sport – football.
Lali, now 48, established good relations with the German Football Association during his time in exile. His chance to nurture the “beautiful game” in his home country came when the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime was toppled in late 2001. “Now football has a base in Afghanistan and with the German help and flair we are targeting achievements at least at the Asian level,” said Lali, who was in Pakistan with the Afghan national team for the eight-nation SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Cup.

Under German coach Klaus Staerk, the Afghans showed signs of improvement, upsetting Sri Lanka 2-1 but failing to reach the competition’s semi-finals. It was their second win at regional level after beating Kyrgyzstan in the Asian Cup qualifying rounds in Nepal two years ago. Lali, head of an Afghan government-run project to promote football, said his efforts would bear fruit soon. “Football is the most sought after sport in Afghanistan and if Staerk remains our coach we can work our way to one of the best teams in Asia.” Players in Afghanistan suffered under the Taliban who considered bare legs un-Islamic.

“Playing football was difficult in the Taliban rule. They did not oppose playing but were against playing in shorts,” said Afghan team captain Waheed Abbasi. Lai said that during his time in Germany he kept in touch with people in Afghanistan but “never in my dreams thought that one day things would change and my country would get back into the international sporting fray.” His project, initiated in September last year, teaches the game to orphans or children from very poor families who are paid stipends.

“The aim of the project is to give talented but poor children and youths the possibility to get football training. Apart from the football training they are taught computer skills, English and maths,” said Lali. Germany, hosts of this year’s World Cup, last year offered the Afghan team three months of free training. Staerk believe this was the first step. “Afghanistan lacks the basic infrastructure and players do not have jobs. But things will improve with more German cooperation and efforts by the locals,” he said.

More and more television coverage helps popularise the sport. “Since we have access to satellite television, we can now watch more football and by watching stars the young people are attracted to the game,” said Abbasi, who adores Brazilian mega-star Ronaldinho.

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