Part I: Crumbling Foundations
Rebuilding foundations – The Lions of Khorasan
With the fall of the Taliban, football was allowed to be played again and officials in Kabul began renovating Ghazi Stadium because of the images that had become associated with it. It was completely gutted and rebuilt. It seats around 5,000 fans now and is again the home of the National Team or The Lions of Khorasan as they’re known in Afghanistan.
The first competition that the team competed in following its very long hiatus was the 2003 South Asian Football Federation Gold Cup. It was held in Dhaka, Bangladesh and was ultimately won by the hosts. Afghanistan understandably struggled in its return to International football and lost all three group stage games, failing to score a goal in any of the three. But just re-establishing the presence of the team as a functional entity was a huge step.
Next came qualification for the 2004 AFC Asian Cup. In Group C of the first preliminary round, they were drawn alongside Nepal and Kyrgyzstan. And after beating the latter in the first game 2-1, they were beaten handily by Nepal 4-0 and that sealed their exit from the competition. In 2005, Afghanistan attempted to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, despite being a member of FIFA since 1948, and entered AFC World Cup qualification in the first round. They were drawn against Turkmenistan and things did not go well. The two-legged home and away tie ended with a 13-0 aggregate score in favour of Turkmenistan. But again, the fact that Afghanistan was competing was progress.
In 2010, they attempted to qualify for the World Cup again, a promising show of consistency for the Football Federation that had been interrupted for so long. Despite losing 5-1 on aggregate to Syria, the national team was gaining much needed international experience that had been lacking since 1979. And they kept this momentum going by entering qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. This time the first round pitted them against Palestine, who only recently began competing in FIFA competitions. The home leg, played in Tajikistan for security reasons, proved costly when they lost 2-0. The away leg saw them earn a creditable 1-1 draw but they came up short on aggregate. However, it was easy to see the improvement. 13-0 to 3-1 in the matter of three qualifying campaigns is something that teams like Andorra and San Marino still dream of.
The most impressive show of progress for the Afghan National Team came in December of 2011, when the team competed in the 2011 South Asian Football Federation Championship in New Delhi, India. The tournament featured eight teams from the region drawn into two groups. Group A contained India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bhutan while Group B consisted of Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. Granted, no one involved is exactly a force in world football, but it put Afghanistan in a position to prove it could be viable as a footballing nation.
The first fixture for the Lions of Khorasan was against top seed India. Remarkably, the underdogs were able to score early on through striker Balal Arezou and despite an Indian equalizer, were able to hold on for a draw. With the toughest game out of the way, Afghanistan could focus on Sri Lanka and Bhutan.
They did well and were able to dispatch both opponents with relative ease. Despite going down a goal to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan was able to pull it together and ran out 3-1 winners through a brace from Sanjar Ahmadi and a goal from Ata Yamir Ali. The next match was not even a contest with the Lions mauling lowly Bhutan 8-1. Arezou had an incredible four goal performance and continued his incredible form for the national team. The pair of wins had put Afghanistan top of the group and they advanced to a semi-final matchup with Nepal.
The match did not start well for the Afghans with Nepal creating a few chances from the off. However, as the game progressed, so did the Afghans and they began to make their mark on the game. Chances came and went for both teams but no one was able to find a winner. As the game went into extra time, Arezou stepped up once again, delivering the winner with a composed finish having been sent through by a brilliant bit of skill from Sanjar Ahmadi. This goal sent the Afghans into their first ever final in an international competition. They lost that final, a rematch with India, but they had achieved something they had never before.
In 2013, Afghanistan had a chance to achieve some more consistency: competing in the AFC Challenge Cup. This is a competition that is open to countries identified as, “emerging” by the AFC. Afghanistan had competed in two editions previously, in 2006 and 2008, but had not qualified in 2010 and 2012. This was an opportunity to establish more consistent international competition at a higher level than the SAFF Championship. They had to navigate through qualifying rounds in order to do so and were handed a group consisting of Laos, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia.
They needed to finish in the top two of the group in order to advance and started strong with a 1-0 win over Sri Lanka. They followed that up with another 1-0 victory over Mongolia. Arezou scored both goals and the Afghan defence distinguished itself by keeping two clean sheets. In the final group game, against Laos, Afghanistan conceded its first goal of the competition in the 30th minute. Then, in the 59th minute, Sanjar Ahmadi popped up with the equalizer. Afghanistan finished top of the group on seven points with Laos finishing second. With the Challenge Cup taking place in March 2014, Afghanistan will have a chance to show the AFC how emergent they are.
Competing consistently in international competition has been pivotal in establishing the Afghan National Team as a viable member of the international footballing community. However, this progress from the national team has made it clear that Afghanistan needed domestic club competition to match its international gains. Without Afghanistan developing players at home, across the country, the national team will stagnate. They need a showcase for Afghan talent at home.
To be continued in part three.
Part I: Crumbling Foundations