German soccer coach Holger Obermann has been sporting ambassador to Afghanistan since 2003, his latest Third World soccer project. Here he talks to DW-WORLD about his work with the Afghans.
It's hardly Milan's San Siro but soccer has flourished in Afghanistan
Former TV reporter Holger Obermann has worked as a soccer coach in the Third World for more than 25 years. In 2003, her was asked by the German government to go to Afghanistan, a country destroyed by war but one where soccer is seen by many as an important part of their culture and everyday life.
DW-WORLD: Mr. Obermann, did you have any concerns when the German foreign ministry asked you to go as a coach and soccer ambassador to Afghanistan?
Holger Obermann: No, not at all. Afghanistan had always fascinated me. And I must say, Afghanistan was with one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had. During the last eleven years I have worked in more than 20 countries including Cameroon, Nepal, Bangladesh, Guinea, Gambia, Taiwan and even East Timor. I know a lot of different national and football cultures. However, those of the Afghans left a deep impression.
DW: The Afghans extremely traumatized by decades of war and the land is completely ruined. How could this impress you so?
Obermann: Of course the war destroyed the land, but not the people. The Afghan desire for life left a profound impression on me. For example, the young people with whom we have trained, they have such enthusiasm for their country and life. And soccer can bring, faster than any other social process, important opportunities for dialog and the development of identity while breaking down mistrust and historical differences.
DW: You have worked in Afghanistan as an development manager for the soccer association. What did that entail?
Obermann: To allow a soccer network to develop, a lot of ground work must be performed. Our major task was to organize courses for coaches, to build up school soccer, street soccer and soccer for girls. In addition, we have supported the Afghan soccer association, and help build a regulated league system. We were also advisers to the national team and have created a promising squad.
DW: And what have you specifically achieved during your six months there?
Obermann: I believe that we contributed to the fact that football has a steadily growing influence on Afghan society. We have trained about 400 coaches there and have brought soccer to about 4000 youngsters in countless schools and on the streets. After more than twenty years there is a national team again. Afghanistan is back on the international stage.
Besides, we have had some amusing experiences. At the end of our project we had more than 90 teams in Kabul alone. They play street against street in a rather anarchic take on soccer, without equipment and referee and with only few rules. Stones are the gateposts - and they play mostly barefooted - on hard or at best sandy surfaces. We have tried successfully to get ball donations from the big German associations with 1000 balls donated by the Sepp Herberger Fund. However, even more are needed.
DW: In your opinion, how important is street soccer?
Obermann: Sport, and especially soccer, has so many social aspects that the extremely important influence on young people cannot be overlooked in countries like Afghanistan. After all these years of war and suppression, it is simply wonderful for them to be able to play together. And one simply learns a lot: the democratic processes which take place in every soccer team. To be able to take responsibility and develop. This is very important - just as the joy of victories and goals is.
In Afghanistan, soccer can also make a huge contribution to the reconstruction of the land. All Afghans will be enthusiastic about their national team. This leads to a feeling of well-being which Afghanistan needs so urgently.
DW: What can be done to promote street soccer further?
Holger Obermann and some of his stars of the future.
Obermann: The importance of soccer has been recognized worldwide as a means for development aid for a long time. The development in Afghanistan profits from these previous experiences - the wheel did not have to be reinvented. But some of the basic things are still missing - above all equipment. However, with the campaign "Balls for Afghanistan," we can achieve a lot, I am sure. And I am very glad that Jürgen Klinsmann and "streetfootballworld" stand behind us.
At the moment, we are working together so the project in Afghanistan can take part in the streetfootballworld festival in 2006 in Germany. Because this festival takes place in 2006 as a part of the cultural program of the World Cup in Germany, it is of course a unique chance for young Afghans to present themselves here.