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Defections Undermine Afghan Sports

After nine players abandon their football team during a tour of Italy, doubt is cast on whether teams will be invited to compete in western European countries again.
By Hafizullah Gardish

The defection of nine members of Afghanistan's national football team during the squad's first visit to a European Union nation since the fall of the Taleban has sparked a heated debate about the role of sports in this society, and led to the disbandment of the team.

Many Afghans said they were furious at the players who abandoned their teammates, describing them as "traitors". But others said the government is also responsible for failing to invest in sports as a symbol of nationhood and for not providing the players with adequate salaries.

The incident has brought attention to the financing and organisation of sports in Afghanistan. The country has no ministry for sport; the National Olympic Committee, with its small annual budget and no representative on the cabinet, oversees the Afghanistan Football Federation and is responsible for all national sports. Sports competition at the school level is the responsibility of the sports department within the ministry of education.

Saeed Ahmad Zea Muzafari, Secretary General of the Afghanistan Olympic Committee conceded that the financial situation for football players is not good. But he said that was no excuse for the players to defect, since many Afghans face equally difficult financial conditions.

He added that the Olympic committee did not have the resources to pay the players' salaries and that the government should provide them with decent pay. But he said that those in government "don't consider sport as a serious need of society, but consider it as a means of recreation".

Since the fall of the Taleban, the Afghan team, composed of 15 players, had previously played in South Korea, Bangladesh, Nepal and Turkmenistan, but this was its first visit to Western Europe. The team arrived in Italy on April 7 and was to take part in a series of matches designed to raise money to build a hospital to serve orphans in the provinces of Afghanistan.

The team won its first game against an independent football team in Florence, 3-1. A second match was scheduled for April 12 in Verona, but the nine Afghan players fled the day before the match.

Since then, five have been arrested: four in Germany and the fifth at the Swiss-Italian border. Four other members of the squad - strikers Haron and Sayed Taher, defender Ruhollah and goalkeeper Jamshid - are still missing.

The fate of the five arrested Afghan players remains unclear.

Following the incident, the Afghanistan Football Federation disbanded the national team - something that was rumoured to occur anyway since the football season was nearly over.

While many fans spoke of their disappointment at the debacle, they also expressed understanding for what led the team members to flee.

A resident of the Qala-e-Fathullah district in Kabul said, "Their escape has made Afghans across the world feel ashamed and both Afghan sport and our national team have lost credibility." But he added he believed that the players never would have fled if Afghan athletes enjoyed a good life and had the necessary sports facilities.

Faraidoon, 19, of Ghulam Haider Khan High School, in Khair Khana district of Kabul, said, "We expected them to return proudly, full of medals - but unfortunately they lost their pride."

But he, too, said he understood what tempted the players to defect.

"In foreign countries people have more respect for sportsmen than presidents," he said. "Athletes in foreign countries are riding in cars with blackened windows; however, in our country, thieves are riding in cars with such windows."

Ali Faizi, 27, the team's star player who is one of the six who returned to Afghanistan from Italy, said he had been unaware that his teammates planned to defect.

"I think they behaved inappropriately," he said.

But Faizi also said he is considering resigning from football because he can no longer provide for his wife, mother, sister and two children, on the 60 US dollars a month he receives from Maiwand, a football team in Kabul. Faizi said that playing football has been his sole occupation for two years and that the national team has provided him with no income.

Raheel Formuli, the team's fullback, works full-time as a lecturer in education at Kabul University. He said he understood what drove his teammates to defect.

"I want to say explicitly that the other players would do the same thing, if they were in financial difficulties," he said.

Formuli said that each player in the Pakistan national team receives a salary of 2,000 dollars a month, but that members of the Afghan national team members received nothing.

Team manager Aziz Azami was staying at his nephew's house in Verona when he received a call from the trainer, Mir Ali Azghar Akbar Zada, saying that the nine team members had gone.

Azami said the football federation had considered asking the players to deposit a surety bond to insure their return but decided that such a requirement would be seen as an insult. Also, he said the team had travelled abroad before without such incidents.

Abdul Karim, 47, said his son, Najeeb, one of the players currently in custody, had turned down previous opportunities to go abroad.

But he said his son had complained about the way footballers were treated in Afghanistan and their lack of financial security.

"When my son came from a match, he showed his injured legs to us and said, 'We are the sportsmen of this country and we eat potatoes', " Karim said.

Bashir Ahmad Saadat's mother, Soraya, said she had no idea her son wasn't planning to return from Italy. She said she was anxious for her son, who is also in custody, to return to help his struggling family.

"His three-year-old son is sick and we have borrowed money for the medicine - and when we force him to eat the pills he says, 'When my father comes home I will be OK,' " she said.

Meanwhile, the Olympic committee and the football federation are faced with the challenge of rebuilding the image of Afghan football at home and abroad. Muzafari said all the players should come back home voluntarily in order to regain the world's trust.

Opinions are divided on whether Afghan athletes will be allowed to join in international competitions following the incident.

"Many countries were supporting our football," Muzafari said, but now the players' defections have "ruined our credibility. We may not be invited by foreign countries anymore".

Azami believes the damage is less serious.

"It doesn't mean that we will not have any foreign fixtures in the future," he said. "We will try to send our national team to European countries."

But Formuli is not so sure.

"Europe and other sporting nations will not invite us to play foreign fixtures any more - or at least for several years," he said. "Our hopes have been dashed by their escape."

Hafizullah Gardish is an editor for IWPR in Kabul.