The contrast of the inaugural Afghan Premier League Final and the bleak sporting legacy of the recent past, epitomised by half-time Taliban executions during matches in the 1990s, could not be greater. Afghanistan's first professional sports league concluded last Friday, bringing hope and the sheer thrill of the game to millions of Afghans of different ages and ethnicities across the country.
Security keep a careful eye over fans from a watch tower above the stands at the APL final on Friday October 19. (Photos: Alex Macbeth)
Thousands crammed into the new soccer stadium to watch their teams contest the final. Fans in Manchester United zip-ups sat beside Real Madrid Ronaldo jerseys emblazoned with the Portuguese’s famous number 7. But this final was being played over 5,000 miles from either Old Trafford or the Santiago Bernabeu – this was an Afghan sporting occasion, the first of its kind.
Aspiring stars from Mazar-e Sharif and Herat collided at Kabul’s national football ground in a winner-takes-all encounter – the final of the inaugural Roshan Afghan Premier League, Afghanistan’s first professional football division, hosted at the Afghan Football Federation Stadium. Amid the partisan orange and blue banners, tricolour Afghan flags flapped in the stands, emblematic of an event much larger than a mere fixture.
The Roshan Afghan Premier League was founded two months ago on a reality TV show, Green Fields, broadcast by Moby Group, owner of ToloTV and a leading media producer in Afghanistan.
Eight teams from 8 regions were selected through viewer polls from across the country, and from mid-September the teams took to the field to contest Afghanistan’s first professional sports league.
Last Friday Herat's Toofan Harirod, the Storm of Harirod, met Simorgh Alborz from Mazar-e Sharif to vie for the title before a capacity crowd of around 7,000 people, with millions more glued to TV sets around the country. The Herat blues emerged the 2-1 winners in the end, but the game and the competition was about far more than winning.
"I came to support the people, not just the teams," Simorgh Alborz fan Muhabbat Miakheil, 24, a graphic designer from Jalalabad living in Kabul, told Afghanistan Today in the stands.
Outside, tumultuous fans tried to force an entry through a narrow gate to catch a glimpse of the action while police shoved them back with occasional lashes from truncheons and sticks. As a Goliath-like ANP officer circled waving his baton, the late fans splashed back like a retreating wave, mindful that a black eye could be their only trophy that day.
Inside the perimeter, Toofan Harirod were treated to an improvised “Herati Wave” by their fans as they left the pitch at half time with a 2-0 lead. In attendance were mainly men, although unlike in neighbouring Iran, where women are banned from football games, a small cluster of women and girls also raised cheers.
The half-time show itself does much to contrast a sinister past and more hopeful present. Fifteen years ago at the neighbouring Ghazi stadium, Taliban justice officials would parade onto the pitch to mutilate and execute men and women charged with assorted crimes, transfixing crowds between the halves. Today, boys and girls from the Afghan Mobile Mini Children's Circus performed synchronised dancing, acrobatics, juggling and unicycle sprints in the centre circle while the fans sang along.
But there were constant reminders of the fragility of this exuberance. US Black Hawk helicopters buzzed past the stadium which was monitored aerially and by scores of police positioned around the site and in above the stands, serving as a reminder of the volatile security situation in the country at large. Tragic news also came in during the day with reports that at least nine football fans were killed and 36 were injured when their bus collided with a fuel tanker in the northern province of Jowzjan.
"I came to support the people, not just the teams - I love the look of enjoyment on everyone's faces." Muhabbat Miakheil, 24, Simorgh Albarz fan.
But considering the risks of amassing such a crowd in one place and the prevalence of attacks on public events in recent years, the day passed without disaster in or around the site itself.
Khalil Ismailzada, a 24-year-old IT student from Mazar-e Sharif agreed the focus was on national reconciliation, despite his side being two goals down with 45 minutes to go. “The great thing is each province now has stronger players which means the national team will develop much faster,” said the young student, adding that his family would be glued to the television and rooting for their orange heroes in Balkh Province.
Khaweed Nawad, a planner for sponsor Moby Group, was involved in the TV programming and related entertainment shows during the tournament: "Our country has been at war for 30 years so this is a very positive development, you can see these kids showing off their skills, and see how football unites people," he said, estimating that the 6,000-8,000 crowd was possibly the largest in Afghanistan’s history for a sports match.
Sat nervously behind Nawad in the press box, Fawad, a contestant on this year’s Afghan Star (a local adaption of the US hit American Idol), prepared to perform his latest hit single about religion to the packed stadium. “This is the first time I will sing in an open public place,“ said the 24-year-old singer and Simorgh Alborz fan, admitting that he was acutely nervous and hoping that his performance would improve on his team’s.
The APL has attracted fans of all ages, ethnicties and regions.
Despite a late surge by Simorgh Alborz, Toofan Harirod won the final 2-1 to claim the first APL title. Having attracted over 100,000 page views on its website in four weeks, the inaugural Afghan Premier League can rightly claim to have been a success, despite referees refraining from awarding red cards for fear of reprisal, and the occasional outburst of hooliganism among over-excited fans.
And while the players received meagre wages compared to their millionaire western counterparts, political entities have rewarded their local teams with hefty financial endorsements. Balkh Province Governor Atta Mohammad Noor for example rewarded Simorgh Alborz with $5,000 for a victory, while MP Lalai Hamidzai gave $5,000 to Maiwan Atalan from southern Kandarhar Province in recognition of the team's earlier league success.
Kawaan Malikzada, a losing finalist with Simorgh Albarz from the north of the country, believes the league has resuscitated “the dying spirit of football and sport in the north of the country.” In an interesting twist, it also inflamed rivalries in one-set houselds over who gets to watch what on TV.
Sheema and Farhad, a brother and sister in Kabul, bickered for the previous three months over whose programme choice prevailed. Sheema demanded to watch her favourite show Bazi Tagdeem, The Game of Fate, while Farhad monopolized the set for the pre-league show, Maidan-e Sabz, Green Fields, and more recently, the Afghan Premier League games.
But after decades of armed conflict, it's the kind of dispute people can live with. "I just love the look of enjoyment on everyone's faces," the graphic designer Miakhel said before bidding a brisk farewell to Afghanistan Today editors and turning back to the action on the field Friday.