Men playing football in a field near the Darul Aman Palace in Kabul. - The game symbolises the undying spirit of the Afghan people. - AFP pic
By Mahendra Ved,
Journalist and chair, CJA India
As 2012 ends amidst turmoil, much of it man-made, I write about some of the world’s most traumatised people, for whom football and music are metaphors for their grim lives.
As revolution swept through Tunisia and Egypt this year, football was put on hold. Domestic leagues were suspended as players and fans were caught up in wider events, the BBC reported in July. But now football is back.
A soccer revolution preceded the Libyan uprising by a good 11 years. Muammar Gaddafi demolished the famous Al-Ahly club in Benghazi and imprisoned the entire team for 10 years. Half of them committed suicide, it is said. The other half were freed on Feb 17.
Ironically, this was done because Gaddafi’s son Saadi, whose lampooning by football fans cost the club dearly, wanted it.
But the same day, Saadi ordered that the protesters be fired on, triggering what is called the ‘second football revolution.’
Iraq, from where the United States has withdrawn nearly nine years after invasion, is another case in point.
An Iraqi journalist took offence at my casual question: “Do they play football in Iraq?” Commenting on my ignorance, he said his national team had once won a bronze at the Olympics.
Football raises passions in Latin America, too. A revolution begun on the football field in the 1960s triggered a change of government.
In communist-era Eastern Europe, the football field was perhaps the only place where people could shout their hearts out.
Football provides relief for people buffeted by change – good, bad or ugly. It helps them reach out to the world. It symbolises, for instance, the undying spirit of the Afghan people.
I am talking of a different Afghanistan – not about the war on terror. The unending ‘Great Game’ that has entered a new phase with the US and allies beginning to withdraw will surely offer another opportunity.
The Afghans, once invaders of India and itsrulers, mingled with the Indian populace. They grow some of the best mangoes and have produced renowned musicians and sports personalities.
The sturdy, kind-hearted Kabuliwallah, the small trader from Kabul, was immortalised in a Rabindranath Tagore short story, filmed thrice. The Hindi version (1961) had a patriotic song hauntingly composed by Salil Choudhury and sung by Manna Dey.
At my suggestion, Dey sang Aye Mere Pyare Watan at a gathering of Afghan visitors. It brought tears to many eyes.
While football is contemporary, music runs deep in Afghan society and, for that matter, people across the border in Pakistan. And not just traditional but pop music, too.
The young face the music from the conservatives for doggedly performing it. When the going gets too tough, they move to Europe and India.
They are frequent participants at the South Asian Band Festival. New Delhi hosted its fifth edition this month. Before it began, I met Zeb and Haniya – cousins Zebunnisa Bangash and Haniya Aslam – a pop group from Kohat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.
“We are very excited to perform for a Delhi audience. Looking forward to hearing other musicians from South Asia as well,” said Zeb.
Returning to football, as Afghanistan played India in the South Asian Football Federation finals, thousands travelled from their war-torn homeland to cheer their under-rated team as it clawed its way to the top of the region’s premier football event.
Although India won, the Afghan team was the crowd favourite.
Hameedullah Yousufzai, the goalkeeper who led Afghanistan’s stellar performance, grew up under Taliban rule.
“There used to be executions on the football field,” he told The Hindu. “I saw stonings and hangings.” A rocket attack he survived
killed several members of his family.
Perhaps Afghanistan’s football performance has its genesis in these kinds of life experiences. Every win is celebrated passionately. Every defeat is treated as part of the learning process.
Cheering the boys was Zahra Mahmoodi, captain of Afghanistan’s women’s football team. Clad in jeans with a scarf covering her head, she is among the few post-Taliban generation of women to play competitive international sport.
Thousands, even President Hamid Karzai, stayed glued to their sets as Samir Bayat, Ariana Television Network’s young producer, broadcast the team’s feat back home.
He said: “So what if we lost? We want good football. India can win; we can win; people back home will celebrate anyway.”
Said Balal Arezo, 22, Afghan football’s Norway-based brand ambassador: “We believe that sport can heal wounds. Money is secondary. We play to bring smiles to our people.”