At a makeshift beach in landlocked Afghanistan, children as young as eight, wearing baggy Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts with “Ronaldo” and “Messi” printed on the back, joyfully kick and chase the ball.
Kabul’s Ghazi stadium was the scene of gruesome executions under Taliban rule but today it is where Afghan youths, the majority of whom have never seen the sea, dream of representing their country at beach football. “I had no idea about beach football before I joined this program. I have never been to a beach,” says 14-year-old Mudasir Yousufzai, head over heels for his newfound passion. “We have a lot of problems. We play on dust and rocks, our goals have no net, but because I am in love with it I still like to play,” he adds, smiling.
Yousufzai is one of dozens of youngsters taking part in a rapidly growing scheme that was set up six months ago to help find the brightest beach football talent in war-torn Afghanistan. The brains behind the project is Hazratgul Baran, who plays for Afghanistan’s surprisingly respectable national beach football team—ranked 10 in Asia and 52 in the world, despite the lack of facilities and sand.
“When I first started this program people wondered what I was doing. They would say, ‘How can you prepare people to play beach football when they have no idea what a beach looks like?’,” says the 28-year-old.
But Baran has had no problems attracting youngsters to the program. Football is hugely popular in Afghanistan with kids playing on dirt roads, in markets and in schools—wherever the security situation allows.
Interest in beach football in particular has boomed since the national team played their first international match, against Qatar, in 2013—a game they won against the odds.
In the beginning they were inspired by landlocked countries like Switzerland that are doing great internationally, says Ruhullah Rastagar, the director of the Afghan Beach Football Committee. “And now we are doing better than a lot of countries who have beaches. We have beaten powerful teams such as Malaysia and China. If we have enough support, I am sure Afghanistan’s beach football team will be at the top of the world rankings soon,” he adds.
The enthusiasm shown by Afghan children for the beautiful game came to the world’s attention last year when six-year-old Murtaza Ahmadi became an online hit after he was pictured wearing an improvised Lionel Messi shirt made out of a plastic bag. He later met his hero. Almost 200 boys, many from extremely poor families, train around three times a week at the Ghazi stadium.
“Most of our players are street kids who do not have any other chance to show their talents to the world,” says Baran. “I go to very remote areas of Kabul to find these talents. If you can play on the street, you can play on the beach,” he adds.
Baran played in the victory over Qatar. Afterwards he signed for a Brazilian beach football club in Sao Paulo but soon returned home, committed to developing Afghanistan’s future stars. “Unfortunately, nobody supports us financially. But I hope people help us so that we can continue this program, which is very unique,” Baran says.
Beach football pitches require a specific type of sand, usually sourced from beaches and desert dunes. But at the Ghazi ground, the kids—many of them barefoot—play on heavier sand used for building construction, which is mixed with soil and rocks. Rather than a glittering ocean as a backdrop, the pitch is surrounded by dried-out thorn bushes.
The laughter of the young players is a welcome change from the ground’s sinister past, however. During the Taliban’s rule from 1996-2001 thousands of spectators would be called to the stadium to watch a football match. Before kick-off or at half-time people deemed disloyal to the regime were often executed or mutilated in front of the crowd.
Now, as dusk falls, the exhausted, dust-covered kids smile as they enthusiastically shake hands before heading home, dreaming of following in Baran’s footsteps.