Even phrases like ‘more than just a game’ and ‘larger than life’ do not do justice to an initiative in Afghanistan that is trying to knit the nation’s social fabric together through the medium of sport.
The Afghan Football Federation in collaboration with Dubai-based Moby Group is organising an Indian Premier League-style entertainment-based football tournament — Afghan Premier League (APL) — set to kick off today in the land severely affected by Taliban insurgency.
APL, an eight-team — De Abaseen Tsape, Shaheen Asmayee, De Maiwand Atalan, De Spinghar Bazan, Tofan Harirod, Simorgh Alborz, Oqaban Hindukosh and Mawjhai Amu – round-robin league (Sept 18-Oct 19) will see local youth from the eight provinces of Afghanistan canvassing their football talent across 31 days. The players were selected via a football reality show Maidan Sabz (green field), which was aired across Afghanistan and watched by the masses indicating the peoples’ love for the sport.
“This is a football-mad country and the people are very excited about the tournament. The response has been very good,” Chris McDonald, a senior advisor to the organisers, told MiD DAY.
McDonald spoke of the effort taken to ensure the tournament matches international standards. “We didn’t have any trouble. The President (Hamid Karzai) was very co-operative. With FIFA’s assistance, we laid out an astro turf and also refurbished the stadiums so as to improve the quality of football,” he said.
Given fears of a Taliban backlash, the organisers are leaving no stone unturned in ensuring that security will be at its best, assured McDonald. “The Afghan government is doing its best. There are full-fledged security plans in place to ensure safety of the players, fans and everyone involved,” said McDonald, adding that the tournament will receive maximum exposure and will be telecast live on TV with commentary in the local dialects of Pashto and Dari.
“Football is a very, very popular sport here. This is essentially an attempt to bring people together, bring the youth together using football,” Chandradev Bhagat, founder of Mumbai-based Greymatter Entertainment — the creative and live TV production partners of the event.
Bhagat hinted at the possibility of some big names in football gracing the event. “The tournament is backed by the United Nations. They are bringing in some of their brand ambassadors, who are famous footballers. On their list are names like (Zinedine) Zidane and (David) Beckham,” said Bhagat, who’s last assignment was the recently concluded Sri Lanka Premier League.
But even without the Zidanes and Beckhams of the world, Bhagat is confident football lovers will flock to the Ghazi National Olympic Stadium in Kabul for the APL. “They are very few public events here. So, even if two small teams are playing a match, it attracts a crowd of about 5000 to 7000 people. So, for a tournament of this magnitude, we are expecting the stadium to be packed,” said Bhagat.