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Soccer scouts

September 11, 2011

Afghanistan currently languishes in 181th place in the global soccer rankings. But that could be about to change as Afghan expats look for talented players in Germany, to beef up their national side.

Herat football team on the bench
Off the bench: Afghanistan is rebuilding its football teamsImage: DW

In Afghanistan, Mohammed Saber Rohparwar is a footballing legend. As a center forward, he scored almost 200 goals for his club Hindukush Kabul in the 1970s. For the national team, he clocked up 25 goals in 56 matches.

When he fled his country in May 1980 with six of his teammates, it attracted considerable attention. It was their way of expressing their opposition to the Soviets, who had invaded their country in 1979.

Looking for talent

Thirty-one years later, Rohparwar lives in Hamburg, the city with the highest number of Afghan expats anywhere in the world. He has never regretted his move, even though he had to start from scratch in Germany.

Mohammed Saber Rohparwar
Rohparwar has never lost his passion for soccerImage: DW

His degree in agricultural economics from the University of Kabul was worthless in Germany, so he became a taxi driver. And a talent scout for the Afghan Football Association.

"I always try to read as many papers as I can, looking for names. I then try and get their phone numbers, or I ask friends who play football elsewhere to let me know if they spot a good player," Rohparwar explained.

And it seems to be working, as he has already found some players who are now in the national team.

Destination Afghanistan

Mansur Faqiryar is one of his finds. His parents fled Afghanistan shortly before he was born, so he grew up in the northern German town of Bremen, where he still lives now. He is a goalkeeper for Oldenburg's soccer club, which has opened the door to a place in the national side.

This spring, he played for Afghanistan for the first time. It was not just a proud and happy moment for him, it was also "very motivating to make a connection with a country that you don't really know but that's home at the same time," he said.

Afghan national keeper Mansur Faqiryar
Faqiryar was spotted at Germany's Oldenburg Football ClubImage: DW

So far, Faqiryar has played in five internationals, but it could have been more, if he had not been injured and held back by bureaucracy. In 2008, Rohparwar told the then national coach Klaus Stärk about the talented goalie from Bremen.

Long way to go

For Faqiryar and his teammates, every international match is a bit of an adventure. For security reasons, the national team is not allowed to play at home. Instead, they have to stage the matches in neighboring countries like India, Nepal or Tajikistan, which is why Faqiryar has only seen his parents' home country once for about five hours, when the team stopped over in Kabul during one of their trips.

But it's not just those restrictions that hold the team back, it's also the composition of the squad that is a challenge. There, two different worlds collide: that of the expat Afghans, like Faqiryar, and that of the Afghans living in their country.

"I'd be lying if I said that it's very harmonious," Faqiryar admitted. "I guess it never is in a football team, but we have additional problems. For example, some players only speak Pashtun, some only speak Dari and some only speak English."

Accommodation is often poor during their international trips too, so it takes a big dose of patriotism and idealism to meet all those challenges with the necessary serenity.

"But when I come back to Germany, I see things in a different light, I relate to things differently," Faqiryar said, emphasizing the positive side of the experience.

A Qatari soccer fan holds up a scarf with an Arabic word reading "Qatar"
Afghanistan hopes to have its own fans at the Asian Cup one dayImage: AP

Help from Germany

Even though Faqiryar can call himself a national player, he knows very well that the level of Afghan soccer is low at best, "which is understandable," he said.

"Football in Afghanistan has only been organized for the last five years I believe, not for the last 50 years, as is the case in Germany. So, we have to see it in perspective."

Like talent scout Rohparwar, he is glad that there are efforts to help Afghan football off the ground at all. Germany's Foreign Ministry is financing several projects, the German Olympic Sports Association organizes various training courses. The idea is to give soccer the staying power for the day - if and when - political stability comes to Afghanistan. So the likes of Faqiryar and Rohparwar see themselves as aid workers too.

It may well take a long time before Afghanistan makes its debut in the World Cup, but the country could qualify for the Asian Cup at an earlier date. Until then, Faqiryar has more modest aspirations. He would simply like to play a true home game, in his own country, for his own country, in the capital, Kabul.

Author: Torsten Ahles / ng
Editor: Nancy Isenson