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International ‘debut’ for Afghan boys
- Advanced physique of players could invite a protest from Nepal

Calcutta: Wednesday, at the Salt Lake Stadium, the Afghanistan under-17 soccer team will play its first-ever match since the war-ravaged country regrouped into a somewhat civic format.

The 21 players (plus officials) from Afghanistan arrived in Calcutta this morning from Delhi where they had reached late on Monday. In their first match of the AFC under-17 championships’ group VI qualifying round they take on Nepal before meeting the hosts Friday.

The labour-lines or war aren’t exactly visible on the kids’ faces, but then they have never let go of this game, playing around the corners of Kabul and Heart, in places where bombs and landmines weren’t around. Asghar Ali, the national coach of the country, isn’t really an Afghan resident these days. He lives in Germany, having fled to that country (“I walked most of the way to Iran before I got any level of transport,” he says) when the Soviets invaded the country in 1979.

He sought asylum in Germany (he had been there as a national footballer), became a software engineer and also a coach with the German football federation DFB. That is the connection Ali has used now to return to his country “to try and give back something (though he is now a German citizen).” A sort of non-resident Afghan (he now lives in Paderborn, near Dortmund), one can say, but the help has been good. The DFB has provided for the squad’s kit, the FA of England and the Italians money for infrastructure and more funds are moving in.

“I was in tears seeing the condition of my motherland when I landed in Kabul on May 28,” said Ali. “Everything was in tatters, few houses standing, roads in bad condition, the Ghazi Stadium which we were proud of was, well, not a stadium any more. Even now the stadium can’t be used, we had to use open land in practice. There was little of what we can call vision.”

He said he hears of Italian and English help and that he has even heard of Indian help. “Your football federation president Priya Ranjan Das Munshi had a meeting with AFC chief Mohammed Bin Hamam a month back in Qatar where he said he would persuade the Indian government to build a Friendship Stadium in Kabul,” said Ali. That was news.

But football, it seems, has survived. There are 18 teams in what one can call the first division in Kabul, and the title is being fought between Urdu Club and Pyman Club. “The game has allowed the people of Afghanistan to get over the war pains,” Ali said. “I held a coaches’ clinic in Kabul and current coach of the team here, Ayatulla Logarmal, is a product. He still plays soccer in Kabul,” said Ali.

He went about this project with 70 probables. That was a three-month dredge before the current 21 were shortlisted and the last bit of coaching for them has been a four-week affair. The coach thinks the players are finally of match capability and “it is good that we are meeting Nepal in the first match, so we can test our abilities and give the kids the first taste of any match (the very first, unfortunately will be an international one) before we take on India.”

Does he think any of his wards deserve a pre-mention' A hem-hawed reply: “I wouldn’t want to point out, but you can look out for defender Mohammed Zahir, he could find himself in the pictures after tomorrow.”

Practice was basically a knockabout match, with the general advanced physique of the players raising a few eyebrows, though.

“It would have been nice had we been able to come here earlier and acclimatised, but we got stuck in the Ramazan holidays and then all the passports and visas had to be made and organised… I guess we will still be fresh tomorrow.”

The only bit that jars could be the age-profile of the players. Certain among the squad do look a trifle physically advanced and there is rumour in the air that there could be a Nepal protest in the offing in the morrow.

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