When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the ’90s, they banned country’s favorite sport, Buzkashi and restricted other sports as well. At the time the Ghazhi stadium in Kabul was used for public executions instead of soccer matches.
Now, after years of war, some Afghans are starting to embrace sports again, promoting and using it in new ways to address some of the country’s largest problems.
“Everyone loves to play, as Afghans are very competitive. It passes time, allowing you to enjoy and forget your sorrows,” said Mariam Wardak, 28, vice chair of Afghanistan Forward. The grass-roots organization aims to use sports to help rebuild the war-torn nation.
“Afghanistan Forward promotes sports through competitions to practice teamwork and learn that even when you lose, you are still a winner,” Wardak said.
Buzkashi is one of the most popular sports in Afghanistan. It is a traditional game similar to polo, but instead of propelling a ball forward to a goal the players on horseback use a headless goat or calf carcass. Other popular sports include soccer, cricket, and wrestling.
“Afghan people have great potential; they have great history, they believe in art, sports, and culture but during the struggle with the Soviet Union much of it was shattered,” said Masood Azizi, 29, chairman of Afghanistan Forward.
Now the organization is focusing on using sports to address one of the country’s biggest challenges: corruption. According to the 2012 corruption perceptions index by Transparency International, Afghanistan shares the last place with North Korea and Somalia.
“In Afghanistan, both the government and the Taliban are trying to convince people that they are right. Because of corruption, people’s problems are not getting solved but are getting worse,” Azizi said.
And the challenge does not stop there. Azizi said that the national team is struggling with “finances, logistics, taboos, and more.”
Afghanistan Forward sets up several cricket and soccer tournaments with an emphasis on public activism. Players wear T-shirts with anti-corruption slogans on them and the public is encouraged to express their views on the issue of corruption before and after each match.
“There are internal challenges and sports is one of the best activities to divert the attention,” Azizi said.
Recently they organized an anti-corruption 10-kilometer race in Nangarhar Province where about 2,000 people participated. They also organized inter-university cricket tournaments on issues of corruption, peace and unity.
Azizi, who formerly served as chief of staff of Nangarhar Province, believes that corruption is a greater threat to the country than security threats.
“When cases are not solved, people have to go to the Taliban or to tribal heads. The legal system is very weak because of high-level corruption. According to a United State Peace Institution, 70 to 80 percent of the cases in Afghanistan are solved by tribal courts,” she said.
Afghanistan Forward is also addressing the issue of women’s participation in sports, which also faces many challenges.
“Security is a huge concern. Having a playing field that is not public [for women] to feel comfortable, and most importantly, being able to receive permission to ‘waste’ time to do something you enjoy. Its extremely difficult,” Wardak said.
Last year Afghanistan Forward organized a cricket match for women in Nangarhar Province. “In Kabul it’s not impossible, in certain cities and districts girls do feel less secure,” Azizi said.
In the first international soccer match played in the capital in a decade, the Afghan players defeated neighboring Pakistan 3 to 0 in a friendly match in a sold-out stadium with 6,000 seats on Aug. 20.
“Afghan youth have lots of potential. If they get opportunities, we will surely see more victories for the country. There should be more coaches, trainers. It would be wonderful to have the cricket World Cup here in the future,” Wadak said.