Ghazi Stadium in Kabul hasn’t been identified with sport for quite some time. Indeed, for a while it was nothing less than a theater of horrors. But now it’s open for business for the beautiful game once again.
For five years from 1996, the arena belonged to the Taliban and was the site of executions and more. But now, thanks to funds that have come from the United States, it’s home to a state-of-the-art artificial pitch that can host all manner of sports.
Not only that, it shouldn’t be too long before the pitch is inspected and rated by world governing body FIFA, which will then allow international matches to be played there, assuming that football’s rulers deem the country to be a safe place to play.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Afghan journalist Zabiullah explained some of the stadium’s gruesome past:
“There was a thief who stole something from his village…they cut his hand, right here,” he says. “A man and a woman were having illegal sexual relations. They were caught, brought here, given 100 lashes each and told to marry each other…I also saw people beheaded and shot. Afghans will never forget these bad memories. Now, men and women, girls and boys, can watch a peaceful match together.”
It remains to be seen how fans feel about returning to the scene of so much sadness, but the news coincides with the fact that the Afghan national team has had perhaps the best month in its history.
Despite being ranked 178th in the world by FIFA, the Lions became the darlings of the South Asian Football Federation Cup (SAFF Cup).
This biennial competition involves eight nations from that region. As you would expect, India is the giant but the likes of Maldives and Sri Lanka shine from time to time.
Afghanistan never does – or at least never did. Always eliminated in the group stage, most expected the same to happen in Delhi. But an impressive performance against hosts India ended in a 1-1 tie that was followed by a fantastic 3-1 win over Sri Lanka. Then, needing just a point to be sure of a place in the last four, the Afghans thrashed Bhutan 8-1.
They didn’t stop there and defeated Nepal in the semi-final before losing 4-0 to India in the big match, with most of the goals coming after Afghanistan had a man sent off.
Despite the loss, the tournament was a triumph for the team, which is made up of players who belong to one of the country’s two domestic leagues and a handful of others spread around in countries such as
Norway, the United States and India.
The local game isn’t exactly awash with money, as you can imagine.
“The leagues are improving but the federation has little money,” said goalkeeper Hamidullah Yousufzai. “Clubs are usually tied to institutions that fund them, but you can guess how profitable it is. We don’t play as many competitive matches as we’d like to, nor do we earn much, which is why most senior team players are not full-time footballers.”
“With no offense to our federation, whatever tournament we are going, they pay us peanuts,” he said.
“India, on the other hand, has a lot of financial support, but the outcome doesn’t show in the way they play. If we get 10 percent of their annual expenditure, I bet the match which ended 1-1 would have been 5-1 in our favor.”
The lack of money means that the lack of stadiums is a real problem for football in the country, so for practical reasons, the reopening of the Ghazi Stadium is welcome.
But the symbolism and meaning is much more important than that, and all hope that the stadium and the team can make some happier memories in the years to come.