Football in Kabul

21:26Ciaran McCormick

There is only one thing as intense as a political rivalry in the world. A football rivalry. In fact, sport is the intersection between culture and politics. Afghanistan has just played its first national football match in a decade against Pakistan. It is a highly symbolic moment in a country that rarely features in news beyond horrifying stories of wartime atrocities. But we have to remember that the ordinary people of these countries need more than just aid and a shelter from bombs. They need passion, distraction, love, heartbreak and the full spectrum of human emotions. This football match captured the elation in a country that is normally shown only in sadness.

A flag waving boy is raised after an Afghan women's football match (courtesy of Flickr - isafmedia)

Tickets were in short supply and lucky fans watched their team come out victorious against Pakistan in a 3:0 win. The countries are bitter rivals and the crowd were enthralled by some compelling, if amateur, theatre. Indeed, the rivalries in international football are so deeply grounded in their political history. England's main rivals include Scotland, Germany and Argentina. The latter two are based on wars with England. Scotland recently played England in a friendly and they will compete soon in an independence referendum.

Football lays bare the tensions in identity as it is played. The role of women in sport and society is revealed by their unequal footballing status. Racism and homophobia are rife. The first has been addressed by high-profile campaigns. The second has been ignored.

England have the opportunity to play out these tensions and use sport to heal open wounds in its national history. However, many countries do not have the freedom and security to enjoy sport as a collective pastime. When I read about this football match in Afghanistan, I am reminded of one of the books that shaped my whole understanding of politics. Khaled Hosseini's 'The Kite Runner' is a famous modern book, read by many in schools. It follows the journey of Amir, a boy seeking refuge from his own past and the atrocities of the Taliban.

The most powerful symbol in the novel is the kite. It represents freedom from earthly troubles. Citizens of Kabul take part in competitions to try to be the last kite in the sky as the others are cut to the ground by their opponents. The Taliban banned it along with many other sports and acts of pure pleasure such as music. In one memorable scene, a woman is stoned to death on a football pitch at halftime. It is a must-read book for anyone looking for a literary narrative on the history and culture of Afghanistan. Though it struggles because it uses a broad brush of stereotypes in its portrayal of Afghanistan and evil, Hitler-worshipping Taliban, it is a compelling eye-opener.

This is why this football match in Kabul is so significant. It offers the opportunity for people to forget the war torn state of their country and their troubled lives and enjoy the youthful spirit of competitiveness. This match was still tainted by the spectre of war with gun wielding guards around the stadium. But it captured a spirit of forward looking optimism.

Perhaps a link can be drawn with 2007. In that year, Iraq won the Asian Cup for the first time against Saudi Arabia. It had a narrower scoreline than this recent Afghanistan-Pakistan match at 1:0. A rag-tag team combined Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish players. They defeated all of the odds by winning and defied expectations. It took a remarkable wave of unity and global shows of support to create that magical moment and remind the country that they deserved a better future than the events of the previous few years promised. They experienced the bliss and pride that they were due and now compete on an international stage. Football worked wonders for Iraqi pride.

When fans celebrated the Afghan win against Pakistan, they were swept away by the spectacle and theatre of the match. They enjoyed the simple pleasure of competition and leisure time that we take for granted in countries that have not been dismembered by war. It should not be tossed aside as symbolic. Instead, it should be treated as a catalyst for recovery for everyone that has had relatives cruelly taken away from them and seen their neighbourhoods crumble. Though political rivalries and the worst in human prejudice can be exposed in football, it can also lift the spirits of some very determined but demoralised people.

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