Why you should care
Because sports are helping this country change its narrative.
It was only a practice match. But when Afghanistan beat Pakistan in May ahead of the currently ongoing men’s Cricket World Cup in the U.K., fans back home hit the streets with celebratory firecrackers and gunshots. Politicians across the divided country set aside their differences to unanimously celebrate. The victory was particularly sweet because of the fierce geopolitical tensions between the nations: Kabul accuses its bigger neighbor of sponsoring the Taliban. In sport, a troubled Afghanistan had found a moment to rejoice.
For four decades, Afghanistan has been a nation torn apart by successive wars and invasions, terrorism and sectarian conflict. Now, stunning sporting successes — from cricket and soccer to martial arts and wrestling — are helping the country dream of a new identity, while also offering hope of a better future to the younger generation.
In 2010, Afghanistan was ranked 195 among nations in FIFA men’s soccer. Today, it’s ranked 149, and it has stayed in the 140s over the past five years, demonstrating that their success is no flash in the pan. No other Asian nation has risen by as many spots as Afghanistan in this period. Currently, Afghanistan is ranked behind only India in South Asia, and ahead of much larger nations such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.
This has not been a smooth ride for Afghanistan sport.
James Dorsey, senior fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
Since 2008, Afghanistan — which had never won an Olympic medal until then — has won two: one in 2008 and one in 2012, both in taekwondo. That’s again more than any South Asian nation other than India. Afghanistan has also won more medals — seven — in the last three Asian Games, the continent’s apex sporting event, than in all previous Asian Games combined. These recent Asian Games medals have come in cricket, taekwondo, wushu and the Turkic wrestling form known as kurash.
Afghanistan was admitted into cricket’s global body only in 2001. But in 2018, the country became the 12th nation to earn Test status, a five-day test of endurance and cricket’s toughest format. Months later, they beat a more seasoned Ireland for their first Test win. And in the shortest format of the sport, T20, Afghan spinner Rashid Khan is ranked the world’s top bowler and is a star of the Indian Premier League (IPL), cricket’s richest series.
“The fact that Rashid Khan got a million-dollar contract from the IPL allows its youth to dream and believe that we can,” says cricket historian Boria Majumdar.
These gains mark a break from the country’s turbulent relationship with sports. Afghanistan was barred from Olympic competitions in 1999 after the Taliban banned women’s participation in sports. The Taliban used Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium to hold public executions. In 1978, after the Soviet invasion, the Kabul Golf Club, which had opened in 1967, was closed. Compared to those times, Afghanistan — even amid bombings and assassinations — has had three successive democratically elected governments.
And these sporting successes can have an impact far beyond the field of play. “It can provide a sense of national pride and identity,” says Ramón Spaaij, a sports sociologist at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. “It can also help shape young people’s aspirations to participate in sport at the grassroots level and to excel in sport and represent the nation at the elite level.”
The first signs of change emerged in 2004. That year, the Afghanistan Handball Federation — which was established in 1981 — finally became a member of the Asian and International Handball Federations. Also that year, the Kabul Golf Club reopened (it’s a nine-course golf course located near Kargha), and Afghanistan returned to the Olympic Games that summer in Athens. Two female athletes, Robina Muqim Yaar and Friba Rezayee, represented the country for the first time, although they didn’t win medals. One female athlete also traveled to Athens to compete in the Paralympics Games for the first time after the Afghanistan Paralympics Federation (AFP) was founded in February 2004.
Afghanistan has since made major inroads in mixed martial arts too. In 2007, Afghan fighter Siyar Bahadurzada defeated Japan’s Shikou Yamashita to win the Shooto light heavyweight championship, a major MMA competition. The following year, Afghanistan hosted the first-ever Kabul-Jalalabad cycle race. In 2009, the Afghanistan Golf Federation was established and, for the first time, an Afghan Karate team participated in the All Kyokushin Karate World Tournament — one of the sport’s premier events.
To be sure, the picture is hardly uniformly rosy. Women have limited access to sports in the ultraconservative society. It was only in August 2008 that the first female weightlifting competition was held in Kabul. The Afghanistan national women’s cricket team was formed only in 2010 and was disbanded in 2014.
Players from Afghanistan’s women’s soccer team accused the federation senior officials of sexual abuse last year. This led to sponsors pulling out and parents asking girls to quit the game. FIFA also suspended the then-head of the Afghanistan Football Federation, Keramuddin Keram, and friendly matches scheduled outside Afghanistan had to be canceled. “This has not been a smooth ride for Afghanistan sport,” says James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Still, bit by bit, Afghanistan — and its women — are trying to battle these challenges. In 2009, Afghanistan unveiled Skateistan, Kabul’s first-ever skate park meant for both men and women. The Afghan National Olympic Committee donated land for the skate park, which is reserved on some days of the week for girls. Then, 2016 saw the first-ever rugby training session for Afghan women at the British Embassy in Kabul. And in 2018, Hanifa Yousoufi became the first Afghan woman to reach the summit of Noshaq, the highest point in Afghanistan. “Women participating in sports in very traditional societies have to deal with more hurdles,” says Dorsey.
Meanwhile, the threat of violence also hovers over Afghanistan’s sports community. In April, gunmen shot dead the head of the taekwondo federation of the province of Kunduz.
But the risks, threats and struggles only help explain why Afghanistan celebrates its sporting successes the way it does: Those wins bring much-needed hope and optimism. On those nights, the gunshots that echo in Kabul bring smiles, not tears.