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51: Wizard of Öz thrills Kabul

Sameer Ahmad Tahseen
As Mesut Özil, Arsenal's record €50 million signing from Real Madrid, prepares to take his bow at Sunderland on Saturday, an Afghan Arsenal fan recounts how the North London club's shock acquisition has helped him…
12.09.2013  |  Kabul
Man of the moment: Arsenal's record signing German international Mesut Özil. (Photo: YouTube screenshot)
Man of the moment: Arsenal's record signing German international Mesut Özil. (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

Before starting to write this piece I put on my Arsenal jersey and went out to the local market, something I do quite often. But this time it was different.

My jersey was getting different sorts of glances than normal from curious onlookers. Two shopkeepers wanted to discuss the latest coup. After eight years without a trophy, things were looking up as a proud gunner.

On Monday September 2, Arsenal fans in Kabul were delighted by the British club’s last-minute deadline day signing Mesut Özil from Real Madrid.

The effect would have been most strongly felt in the radius of north London’s Emirates Stadium. But even thousands of miles away in Kabul, my brother and I, proud 'Gunners' or 'Gooners', as Arsenal fans are known, celebrated the move well up to 4 am AST.

#OzilsAGunner

We logged on to Twitter to follow the Gunners-themed hash tags worldwide: #OzilsAGunner.  We were enthralled by the effects of the second largest signing in British football history. The capture of the talismanic German is surely considered a game changer for Arsenal on many fronts.

To contextualise what it meant for Afghan football fans, Özil moving to Arsenal was celebrated with more joy than the Afghan national team beating Pakistan in the first international match played on Afghan soil, on August 20, in more than 25 years. Only Afghanistan's recent South Asian Football Federation Championship victory comes near it.

The Afghan Premier League only launched last year but football was always popular in Afghanistan. Most fans support European giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Manchester City and Italian duo Inter and AC Milan.

A fan wearing a Manchester United replica top at last year's APL final in Kabul. (Photo: Alex Macbeth)

Fans are attracted to big name players like Ronaldo, Messi, Van Persie, Ribery and Aguerro. The sheer success that Europe’s big clubs have enjoyed in their respective leagues and the spectacle of the UEFA Champions League draws thousands of viewers online every week from Mazar-e Sharif to Kandahar.

The day after deadline day, I witnessed a shift in allegiances, especially among younger more malleable supporters. School students, shop keepers and other football enthusiasts on Kabul streets, as well as on Facebook- everybody was talking about the Arsenal, and how Real Madrid were duped into selling their second best player to the Gunners.

“How could they sell Özil, have Real Madrid gone mad?” one child, evidently a Madrid fan, asked another as they walked to school in Kabul.

“To Arsenal… Is Özil crazy?” replied his friend.

At this point I felt like intervening in the youngsters’ conversation, but I was on my way to the bank and running late. The bank clerk, a friend and Manchester United fan, could see the jubilant flash in my eyes and instantly went on the offensive.

The wizard of Özil effect

“Özil cannot turn you into title contenders, you will still finish fourth and we will win the title as always,” he blustered, but I shrugged it off. “Just wait for Arsenal’s Wizard of Oz...” I told him.

Such football ‘banter’ is commonplace between Afghan men. Fans here mainly communicate over sport websites, like Goal.com and BBC sports, otherwise through Facebook, Twitter or work groups. Big European matches are particularly followed: A Barca-Real derby can cause similar headaches for an Afghan as a Catalan.

I remember an incident last year when Barcelona were beaten by Bayern Munich  4-0 in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals.  I was watching the match on TV with my friend Nooruddin, a Barcelona fan, who was on a business trip from Herat.

Straight after the game, he switched off his phone because his friends were taunting him. After a sleepless night he found over 100 taunts on his Facebook wall the next day. And as if that wasn’t enough, his friends came all the way to the airport in Herat a couple of days later to rub it in.

My initiation

Football's popularity has rocketed  in Aghanistan since the Afghan Premier League (APL) was formed last year. (Photo: Waheed Orya)

I became an Arsenal fan in 2005 when they won the FA Cup against arch-rivals Manchester United. I was in the northern province of Kunduz at the time, working with an International NGO and some of my foreign colleagues were always debating on football matters.

I soon developed an interest. I started reading websites about football clubs, traditions, fan following and history. With a cable TV subscription, I kept tabs on the English Premier League. The presence of world-class players such as Henry, Vieira, Ljungberg, Pires, Silva, Lehmann and Fabregas and their beautiful and sleek playing style made me choose Arsenal.

I’ve been a diehard follower ever since, and dream that someday I will be able to travel to watch the mighty Gunners at the Emirates Stadium in Ashburton Groove, North London.

Global football family

There are a no official or reported fan clubs here, so the football community revolves around social media. This means many fans are part of global football debates. I have friends from England, Spain, Germany, Australia, Nigeria, Somalia, Japan, Indonesia, the US and India, all Gunners, whom I have never seen or met.

I follow well-known bloggers, sports journalists and official clubs’ handles on Twitter. I take part in debates and express my opinion on all Arsenal related matters and the reactions, and the cameraderie and support I get back make me feel a part of this global Arsenal community.

Although Osama Bin Laden was also rumoured to have been an Arsenal fan, the Emirates stadium was still another world until five or so years ago for most Afghans.

Now increased Internet penetration, better access to international sport channels via satellite receivers, matches televised on local Afghan channels (albeit illegally), along with news from returning Afghan refugees have all helped build a football culture.  And now the APL, currently in its second year, is feeding the country's appetite for the beautiful game.

Armchair managers spreading fast

"...we signed Özil, the best midifielder in the world right now." Afghan Gooner's ecstatic tweets just hours after deadline day for transfers of players closed in the English Premier League (EPL). (This and main photo: Twitter screenshot)

The overall football knowledge among Afghan fans has also improved tremendously. Whether it’s football economics - transfer fees, player wages, agents fees, ticket prices, taxation rules - regulations, tactics, or management policy.

Now you will not see a perplexed face if you ask an Afghan Chelsea FC fan why Radamel Falcao chose PSG over Chelsea, despite Chelsea offering him higher weekly wages. The intricacies of reduced taxation in Monaco, one of Europe’s newly rich clubs, is not lost now on most fans.

As for me, I am still receiving congratulatory phone calls, text messages and have been busy in hot debates with Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid fans. To be honest, it’s quite unfamiliar territory to be in. After all, we haven’t won a tropy for eight years.

In the end, as a proud Gooner, I will chant the COYG (Come on You Gunners), continue the rippling effect created by the capture of Özil and watch as we take the Premiere League and Europe by storm.

Wanna discuss football in general and Arsenal in particular? I can be reached on Twitter at @sam_afghan aka The Afghan Gooner.