Who does the Afghan football team represent now?

BELEK, Turkey – Anoush Dastgir may be the hardest working man in football, but on Saturday his work had taken its toll. Dastgir, the co...


BELEK, Turkey – Anoush Dastgir may be the hardest working man in football, but on Saturday his work had taken its toll.

Dastgir, the coach of the Afghanistan men’s national team, was sitting in an empty hotel restaurant where he and his team were preparing for an exhibition match against Indonesia. It was 11pm and Dastgir was battling what looked like a bad cold. Which wasn’t surprising, considering he now had a dozen tasks to complete.

Coaching a national football team is difficult enough anywhere, but coaching Afghanistan has long faced unique challenges.

It is one of the poorest countries in the world and a place where civil war and Taliban rule once kept the national team from playing a game for nearly two decades. The country is considered so dangerous, in fact, that FIFA, the world’s footballing governing body, has long banned its teams from playing at home. Most of the time, it didn’t matter: Afghanistan is ranked 152nd in the world. And he never qualified for a major tournament.

Yet circumstances became even more difficult over the summer, when the Taliban returned to Kabul, the Afghan government collapsed and its president, Ashraf Ghani – not to mention tens of thousands of his compatriots – fled the country.

Dastgir lost access to part of his team and half of his staff in the chaos. Two staff members are now in refugee camps in Qatar. Two more are in Afghanistan, eager to leave. His list is almost entirely populated with Afghan refugees, or sons of refugees, who have found refuge in the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, Sweden and beyond over the years, fleeing the various conflicts that have Afghanistan has been plaguing Afghanistan since the 1980s. But a few still spend time in Afghanistan, and this very year it has become a problem.

One of Dastgir’s most important players, Noor Husin, who left for Britain at the age of six, was in the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif in July as the Taliban approached. “To be honest, I was terrified,” he said. “Because every day there was news, they are getting closer, they are on the outskirts of the city. And I thought, surely not. You just didn’t think it was going to happen. he said.

Husin managed to get to Kabul and out of the country, but he – like many of his teammates – believed the national team was over. “Everyone thought it was the end, the end of everything,” he said.

Dastgir, however, was determined to keep him alive, to keep him serving, he said, as a rare symbol of unity in a country often divided along ethnic or linguistic lines. So a few weeks ago, he picked up the phone and organized a friendly match – the first since the Taliban took power – against Indonesia. It was the easy part. He then had to find a site for the game, arrange flights and visas for players, and procure coronavirus tests for everyone. With the Afghan Football Association’s bank account frozen, Dastgir successfully asked FIFA to help finance the trip.

Without a kit man, Dastgir also had to ship 450 pounds of training gear himself and then persuade his brother-in-law to help him wash it. He bought soccer balls, organized referees and, without a communications team, promoted the game on his private social media accounts. He even negotiated a broadcast contract to ensure that as many people as possible returning to Afghanistan could watch the game. And then, with all that done, he still had to find the time to train the team.

But as midnight approached in the hotel restaurant on Saturday, there was one important issue to be resolved: What flag would the team be displaying?

At 31, Dastgir is one of the youngest coaches in world football. Born in Kabul, he escaped the country’s civil war with his family shortly after the Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989. He was only a few months old and grew up in Pakistan and then in India before settling in the United States. Netherlands.

In Europe he learned Dutch and was spotted by top club NEC Nijmegen. He was eventually called up for the Afghan national team, but appeared in a handful of games before a knee injury ended his playing career.

“My coaches said, ‘You have to start coaching’ because as a player I was kind of the leader of the team,” he said. His first opportunity to lead Afghanistan came in 2016, when a foreign coach failed to show up to a match due to a contract dispute.

“The players said, ‘I think Anoush can handle it,'” Dastgir recalled. He lost that game but the team played well. The next time the job opened, in 2018, he got the job.

At that time, he was looking for Afghan players. Many have been discovered among the vast Afghan diaspora, refugees and their children scattered across the world. When a match against Palestine in Kabul was staged in 2018, the first international match to be played in Afghanistan in years, Dastgir drew on several of his findings.

“I wanted these players in Afghanistan to feel the country, to see the people, because most of them were born outside the country,” he said. “So if you tell them to play for your country, they’re like, ‘What is this? “”

Even today, the place of the team as a visible multicultural institution is manifested in the training sessions.

Instructions were shouted in Dutch and Pashto. Encouragement was offered in German, Dari and English. Sometimes Dastgir would change the language in the middle of a sentence. “My first captain is Tajik,” he said. “My second captain is Pashtun. My third captain is Hazara. Two of its players, brothers Adam and David Najem, were born in New Jersey.

However, as the match approached, the flag and anthem issues remained unresolved. It was not a decision to be taken lightly. The white flag of the Taliban, with the Shahada – the declaration of Muslim faith – printed on it, replaced the green, red and black tricolor on the Afghan presidential palace. And because the Taliban instituted a broad ban on music, the national anthem was effectively banned.

Dastgir knew that playing it and flying the old flag would be controversial; the country’s men’s cricket team was reprimanded by a Taliban leader after doing so at the Twenty20 World Cup. He knew his choice could cost him his job or worse.

“I’m not afraid of being fired,” Dastgir said. “I am the head coach of the 37 million Afghan national team. I am not the coach of the Taliban regime’s national team, or the Ghani regime. We never did it for the government. We did it for the people.

No one in the Afghan camp was sure supporters would come to watch them play in Belek, a coastal town near Antalya.

Stadium officials worried about coronavirus restrictions were assuaged when Dastgir agreed to pay for the security out of his own pocket. There was also the question of whether the Turkish police could prove to be a deterrent. At least 300,000 Afghan refugees and migrants have found refuge in Turkey in recent years, and many are undocumented. But as the daylight faded and the kick-off approached, hundreds of fans lined up outside the stadium gate.

“I want to show that I am Afghan,” said Mursal, an 18-year-old student wrapped in a large Afghan flag but suspicious enough to refuse to give her last name. She had fled to Turkey four years ago, after her father was killed in Afghanistan, and had found few opportunities to wave the Afghan flag since her arrival. “It’s our flag. You have no other flag. Just this flag, and no one can change it.

Six hundred supporters – the limit agreed with stadium officials – quickly poured in, filling the stadium’s only long stand.

A few minutes before kick-off, the teams lined up in the midfield. In front of them, two of the Afghan replacements unfurled a large green, red and black flag, the one that Dastgir had taken with him to Belek. The anthem was played, a moment beamed by millions of Afghans returning home. No one was there to take the traditional pre-match photo: the official team photographer fled to Portugal months ago.

The match was hectic, punctuated by the constant noise of Afghan fans. Dastgir, all dressed in black, calmly gave tactical instructions. At the end of the second half he called up Omid Popalzay, a high midfielder in the Netherlands who was last seen playing in the Polish Fourth Division. In the 85th minute, moments after coming on as a substitute, Popalzay scored. A few minutes later, the final whistle sounded. Afghanistan won and the fans were overjoyed.

A fan jumped 12 feet onto the running track surrounding the pitch in hopes of getting a selfie, but was pulled over by police and backed into a frog by the neck. One player, Norlla Amiri, climbed onto the shoulders of a teammate so that his toddler son could be passed on to him.

Other fans threw their cell phones at the players, asking for selfies. Many wanted photos with Faysal Shayesteh, a 30-year-old midfielder who has had a professional globetrotting career since arriving in the Netherlands as a boy.

Almost every Afghan fan knew Shayesteh because of his tattoos, including the one on his chest that shows the Kabul skyline under a fighter plane and attack helicopter, each bombarding the city with red hearts. Above his left breast were two GPS coordinates: the first corresponds to Hengelo, the city in the east of the Netherlands where he grew up. The other is Kabul, where he was born.

“If I talk about it, I get emotional,” he said, choking back tears. “Because I know what the Afghans are going through. And I know that’s the only thing that makes them happy, winning a game for the national team. It’s the only thing they have, so I’m very happy.

Dastgir watched it all unfold from behind, filming part of it on his phone to post on his Instagram account. No one had done more than him to make this moment happen.

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