Wednesday 10 July 2013
The revival of football in Afghanistan is receiving a boost thanks to the efforts of the Premier League and the British Council.
The game has been badly hit in the country since the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the ensuing civil war but, with the fall of the ruling Taliban, football is re-emerging and to help this development at grassroots level, 20 leading coaches from the country were brought over to Dubai to learn how they can pass their skills effectively to the local communities to boost participation and skill levels.
"To watch someone do it, it looks easy, but to do it yourself is different"
Everton youth coach Johnny Garside and former Premier League footballer Mark Bright led the coaching sessions in Dubai as part of Premier Skills, a training programme established by the Premier League and the British Council. The training sessions at at GEMS World Academy meant that Afghanistan became the 21st country to have Premier Skills delivered.
"This is first of a three-phase programme, so what we want is to send the coaches back to the country, to their community, being able to coach children of any ability," Bright said. "The participants were more qualified than in previous programmes elsewhere. A lot were national managers of the U16 teams, one was the assistant coach of the senior squad. So you could say some were overqualified for the course but we had to explain to them it is a community programme.
"So we taught them the basics. How to organise a warm-up; organise passing and controlling; and how to hold a session for shooting, as well as a small-sided game. We taught them how each session must mark progress. Such as a skill learnt unopposed, control and passing for example, then bringing in opponents to do so under pressure. The next step is a game, and re-enacting those skills learnt in a match situation."
Despite their qualifications and experience, the coaches gained a lot of useful knowledge from Premier Skills to take back to their local communities and with which they could coach the children there better.
"To watch someone do it, it looks easy, but to do it yourself is much different," Bright said of the coaching. "So from the start, we picked up areas where they needed to be more organised, where there was something amiss or they had forgotten something.
"We also got them to think outside the box. So they began to realise how they need to adjust the size of coaching areas to the age of the participants, such as making it smaller for kids. Now they have seen how they can make their coaching better when they go back to their communities."
Despite the well-documented troubles in the region, the Afghan Premier League (APL) was launched last year, with eight participating teams representing a region of the country. The APL aims to sustain the development of football throughout the country, to strengthen national unity, community cohesion and a peaceful coexistence of all groups of society, especially Afghan youths.
The teams are split into two groups, playing each other once, in matches that are played in Kabul. The top two from each group progress to the semi-finals. The inaugural title, with prize money of US$15,000, was won by Toofaan Harirod who beat Simorgh Alborz in the play-off final.
"The women told me how the Taliban told them they would shoot any of them participating in sporting activities"
For the Simorgh Alborz team, the final was played under a cloud after a bus carrying the club's fans and relatives of the squad crashed en route to Kabul, killing more than 50 of the passengers.
"Some of the players who lost relatives went back for the funerals," Sharifyar told the United Arab Emirate newspaper The National. "This was the day before the final, the tickets had been sold, the advertisements were up and the commissioner of the Premier League asked me if we can carry on, and I said we don't have a choice as the people are here already.
"One of the main reasons we lost was that the players, psychologically, could not focus after what had happened. We lost the game 2-1, but it was a good game, the stadium was almost full with over 10,000 people there."
The popularity of that match reflects the appeal of the sport in a country that boasts a long footballing tradition. The Afghan Football Federation was set up in 1933 and joined FIFA in 1948 with the national team playing its first match against European opposition at the London Olympic Games in 1948. The ability to play football with freedom changed with first the Soviet invasion and then the rise of the Taliban.
While in Dubai, Bright and Garside heard from the participants about the terror the Taliban imposed on those who wanted to play football.
"Some of the stories we heard were terrible," Bright said. "We heard about how the Taliban shot people on the pitch, driving on to it during a match and beating up the referee for wearing red, which was banned. The women there told me how the Taliban said how they would shoot any of them participating in sporting activities."
Not only was participation banned but contact with the sport in other countries was restricted too.
"One woman, Zahra Mahmoodi, told me that she was a Manchester United fan after their success in 1999, but, for five years, because of the bans put in place by the Taliban she did not know anything about what had happened there."
Football is flourishing again in Afghanistan now and the hope is that Premier Skills can hope boost the quality and popularity of the APL. It is not, however, a project intended purely for technical achievement and league success.
Bright and the organisers insist that the project is about fostering a football community in Afghanistan, in which people from different ethnic backgrounds unite in a common cause. The aim is for the 20 coaches to grow into community leaders over the next three years, develop their own projects - and pass on what they have learnt from Premier Skills to other coaches from across the country.
"There are so many good news stories in Afghanistan that just don't get out"
Since 2007 Premier Skills has created training opportunities benefitting 2,300 grassroots coaches and referees who, in turn, have reached more than 400,000 young people.
Under the programme 6,000 teachers have also received face-to-face training in the use of the Premier Skills English materials, applying these in the classroom to reach thousands of pupils. In addition there have been 3.5 million views of the English materials online.
The Afghan participants are not just learning about set-pieces and offside traps but as developing community coaches will also be required to tackle community issues such as health, disability, gender, inclusion and education.
"That is absolutely what we want to be doing," said John Mitchell, British Council director in Afghanistan. "There are so many good news stories in Afghanistan that just don't get out, if you look around us now this is a fantastic opportunity.
"The Afghan coaches are here to learn, and there are a lot of Afghan children having a fantastic time. This will be replicated right across Afghanistan, and it is an opportunity to develop skills and actually strengthen cohesion within the communities."
Since 2007 it has created training opportunities benefitting 2,300 grassroots coaches and referees who, in turn, have reached more than 400,000 young people.
To see the Afghan coaches and Premier Skills in action, click here (BBC video; UK only)