Soccer brings a smile to Afghan faces
Delhi, October 17, 2006 (BBC) - Soccer players and managers the world over are renowned for their optimistic assessments of their team's chances.
But members of the Afghan team have more reason to be upbeat than most.
The feel-good factor among members of the junior side (Under 17s) provides a welcome respite for a country ravaged by years of violence and political instability.
The cheerfulness was reflected among the crowd at Delhi's Ambedkar Stadium, where Afghan children cheered ceaselessly during a recent international competition.
We met them clustered on a rusty corner bench, loudly encouraging their team in the annual, month-long soccer Subroto Cup.
The presence of the 15-member junior team in India was a symbol of Afghanistan's rebirth.
Named after the first Indian Air Chief, Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee, the tournament began in 1960.
This year, the cup's popularity drew over 65 national teams, as well as players from across South Asian countries.
While soccer may not be the national sport of Afghanistan, it has come a long way in establishing itself as a unifying sport for many Afghans.
The gusto and passion shown by members of the team for the game increased as they start scoring goals outside of their country.
Team Afghanistan's performance impressed the commentators.
They won three of their four group matches - beating teams from Manipur, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, and losing only to Nepal.
"If the youth of Afghanistan get exposed to more overseas trips, God willing in the near future a strong Afghan national team could be formulated easily," said Sher Ahmed Waziri, a student of Mahmood Tarzi School from Kabul.
But more exposure is not the only determining factor.
Many within the team sense a lack of ethnic diversity.
"The majority of the players are selected only from the province of Kabul," said Waziri.
"We have raised this issue with the Football Federation of Afghanistan and requested them to choose players from other provinces and ethnic groups.
"If there are only 11 places available, how can one province represent a whole country?" he asked.
While the group question the perceived lack of diversity back home, India has presented a different set of challenges.
The team's encounter in a foreign land have left some in the Afghan side with a profound sense of cultural disorientation, or culture shock.
"The other day we took the rickshaw to visit a market and the man drove us back to Subroto stadium," said Naweed Huzeri, from the province of Badakhshan.
"But the rickshaw rider said he would not accept $20. I was quite worried because that was all I had!"
For many players, India has been their first trip outside of their country.
Team members such as Huzeri say that although they have had difficulties adapting to the new environment, Delhi's "memorable experience" has united the team into "one big family".
The team has bonded through a "non-football" agenda which resulted in a memorable road trip to Taj Mahal.
Afghanistan's problematic times, according to Waziri, have impeded his country from "proving itself to the outside world".
But now he hopes that future generations, like his, will bring progressive change.
"I have the desire to complete my education and pursue engineering," said squad member Mohammad Naseer, who until two years ago lived in a refugee camp in the Iranian capital, Tehran.
He says that he is content to have returned to Afghanistan which he feels is in urgent need of infrastructure development so that the country will once again progress.
"Even though I was with Afghan communities in Tehran, they were difficult times," said Naseer.
"I'm glad to be home among friends of my own.
"I want to study now and take a path to give back to my country," he says.
It is difficult to know where the ambition of this convivial and determined soccer player will take him - an Afghan World Cup triumph perhaps?
If medals were awarded according to a team's optimism, the team would already be serious World Cup contenders.