July 9, 2010 / 11:03 AM / 7 years ago

Dirt pitches, low wages but Afghans dream of soccer glory

KABUL (Reuters Life!) - The glitz of Sunday's World Cup final in South Africa will be a distant vision for millions of fanatical Afghan fans who will be glued to television screens dreaming of their country one day walking on soccer's big stage.

Although the game is immensely popular in Afghanistan, decades of conflict and a lack of development resources have left the country languishing in 189th place out of 202 in rankings administered by soccer's world governing body FIFA.

"The government pays very little attention to football and to its players. We don't have regular training," Mohammad Yaseen Mohammadi, deputy head of Afghanistan's national team, told Reuters.

"We have a long way to go before performing like other international teams in the world," he added.

Soccer is not alone of course. All sports have taken a back seat as Afghanistan struggles to overcome a worsening Taliban insurgency and the legacy of years of civil war which destroyed much of the country's sporting infrastructure.

Only Buzkashi has thrived, the violent polo-like national game in which players mounted on horses compete to get the carcass of a headless goat or calf over a goal line.

The Afghan national soccer team was founded in 1922 and joined FIFA in 1948. They play home games at the Ghazi National Olympic Stadium in Kabul, which was built by King Amanullah Khan in 1923 and holds 25,000 fans.

The ground has a bloody history. The Taliban used to execute condemned criminals or amputate the limbs of thieves at the stadium during their rule.

FIFA pays $250,000 -- less than the monthly wage of a player in one of Europe's big leagues -- to the Afghan authorities each year to cover player salaries and the administrative costs of branches in the country's 34 provinces, Mohammadi said.

"We can't pay much to good players who help the whole team win a game," he added. "The player considered a champion one year may have to leave football the next and work in a shop to feed his family."

Tell that to Portugal's Real Madrid winger Cristiano Ronaldo, who banks 11 million pounds ($16.71 million) a year as the world's highest paid footballer.

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Afghanistan's top players need to hunt for wealthy backers like banks or powerful businessmen to feed their families as the government is unable to support them financially, needing to direct money into rebuilding since the Taliban's 2001 ousting.

As Afghanistan's team rarely travels overseas for international matches, players see the opportunity to play for patron sponsors as the easiest income.

"Playing for the national team gives us a pride but nothing else, pride is not going to feed my family," said Hashmat Barekzai, Afghanistan's 26-year-old captain, sporting the shirt of English Premier League club Arsenal.

"Football is my life but I need to earn money from it like professional players," he said sitting on the ground at Ghazi, which is the only grass soccer pitch in Kabul.

Barekzai earns about $1,000 a month from his sponsor, Kabul Bank, which is still 10 times the income of a government worker.

He always dreamed, he said, of Afghanistan playing in a World Cup, which he sees as a near-impossible task. The country's highest ever world ranking was 173 in July 2006.

"I will die, but my dream and hope will always live," Barekzai said.

Even seeing a game on television is difficult for many Afghans, with only about 14 percent of the country having regular electricity and most people outside Kabul watching games in groups or in outdoor communal settings.

But there have been small successes.

Afghanistan managed to beat India, neighboring Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the group stage of this year's South Asian Games men's soccer tournament before getting past the Maldives in the semi-finals and losing the final 4-0 to hosts Bangladesh.

According to the coach, the achievement lay in the passion of the players, and God's mercy.

"No one expected that we would be able to make it to the final with our low morale and lack of resources," Elyas Ahmad Manocher said.

Manocher, recalled a phone call from the head of the Afghan Olympic team while he was in Bangladesh, begging for his team to at least beat fierce rivals Pakistan, which is often accused of treating Afghanistan as a puppet state.

"He said if the team lost to anyone else, it didn't matter," added Manocher.

Manocher, who earns $1,500 a month from his sponsor, said players are not usually allowed to train at Ghazi because the pitch is saved for top-tier matches, with the rest played on dust.

"How can you expect a national team to train and prepare on a dusty field? It is not even safe for our own health," he said.

(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)

Editing by Rob Taylor and Paul Casciato

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