| MABBUTT AND McMENEMY: Remain committed
London: After years in the wilderness, Afghan soccer has a 12-team league on the cards amid gathering international efforts to revive the sport’s structure in the much-troubled country.
Optimists even see the day when Afghanistan make their debut in World Cup qualifying matches and women play the game on a regular basis.
Ex-Tottenham captain and England defender Gary Mabbutt is involved in the drive to help to restore some kind of normality to the country through soccer.
He told Reuters and 13 Afghan journalists visiting London: “A lot of work has taken place and things are moving forward at perhaps a quicker rate than I first thought they would. I am delighted with that.”
In February, Mabbutt flew to Kabul in a C-17 transporter with former Southampton and Northern Ireland manager Lawrie McMenemy for a special Game of Unity between a Kabul side and troops from the International Security Assistance Force.
The burly troops beat the skilful though lighter and less fit locals 3-1. It was an emotional, not to say hair-raising, experience for both McMenemy, who was coaching the locals, and Mabbutt, with the troops.
A capacity 35,000 crowd paid the equivalent of 10 cents each to pack into a stadium which in Taliban days witnessed public executions, amputations and floggings.
Thousands of others fans, unable to get tickets, hammered on the gates and lobbed bricks over the walls at those inside.
Shots were fired into the air and tear gas released as security forces brandishing sticks capped with barbed wire or chains moved in. On the pitch, three bands played on, all but drowning the clashes outside on a highly-charged and volatile occasion.
The advice to Mabbutt and the others was to hit the ground if they heard gunshot inside the ground or a grenade was tossed on to the pitch.
Neither event happened and when the Kabul side went ahead there was near-delirium among the fans who under the Taliban were not even allowed a hearty cheer.
But the troops equalised and then took control in the second half. When their third goal went in, the initial euphoria was overtaken by a scene familiar round the world — beaten home fans trudging away well before the final whistle.
All that was more than nine months ago but Mabbutt and McMenemy remain as committed as ever to the project with a firm vision for the future.
Mabbutt said: “It’s Ground Zero really to start rebuilding — not just at the national level but all the way through.
“The idea is that a league will be formed with six to eight teams from Kabul and then another four teams, probably two from Kandahar and two from Herat.”
The Game of Unity was more than a symbol, says Mabbutt, who retired at the age of 37 nearly four years ago with a knee injury after an inspirational career in which he reached the top level despite suffering diabetes.
He knows rebuilding in Afghanistan will not be easy but remains optimistic.
“Things have gone very smoothly so far but of course there are going to be problems along the way but we are hopefully down the road,” Mabbutt said.
“Who knows' At the moment I believe there are ladies taking part in volleyball and basketball and maybe in years to come we may perhaps have women’s football in Afghanistan.”
McMenemy, 66, said: “Equipment is what is required first — playing kit, goals, markers for training, that sort of thing. It should be easy for the European countries to give as much as you can get on a plane.
“All the other things take time. There are plenty of people who want to play but it needs organising.”
Coaches and administrators are needed, as well as equipment and stadiums, but it all takes money. Officials are unable to put a cost on it though such long-term commitment will clearly not come cheap.
Jane Bateman, the English Football Association’s (FA) head of International Relations, said: “The Asian Football Confederation sent a task force out there two months ago and their recommendations have fed through now.
“We had meetings on Wednesday and we are just looking at how we divide the responsibilities and what sort of funding is required.
“You would anticipate that governments would get involved along with other funding bodies and national associations. The picture is a big one but people will do what is in their remit and we will do what is on ours but I don’t have a figure at this stage.”
Officials are also wary about committing to a time-frame for the return of a proper national league. But whenever it comes about, be it two years or five, there will still be a tough climb ahead.
In September, a 19-man Afghan squad, part-funded by Fifa, went to South Korea for the Asian Games soccer tournament as late replacements for Mongolia.
The outcome at the end of a five-day journey via Pakistan and Thailand were three sound defeats — 11-0 by Lebanon and Qatar and 10-0 by Iran.
But, unbowed, one of the players sounded a rally cry. Basher Ahmad Saadat told reporters: “Afghan people are strong. If we can get help, we can be good at sports.”