Situated in the capital city of Kabul, Afghanistan's national stadium, the Ghazi Stadium, built in 1923 by King Amanullah Khan, perfectly portrays the changing face of Afghanistan. Used as a venue for public executions by the Taliban government in the late 90s, the Ghazi Stadium symbolized the horrific times endured by the nation. Even after the Talibans were uprooted from Afghanistan's capital by US-led forces, Ghazi Stadium remained a brutal reminder to Afghans of the Taliban's ghastly acts.
In 2011, however, the Ghazi was renovated, with the entire ground being removed, and replaced with new soil, and artificial turf being put at the top. Thousands of locals attended and cheered the reopening of the renovated stadium on December 15, 2011, as the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee hosted a reopening ceremony featuring a parade of athletes and two short football games involving the men's and women's sides. The renovation of the stadium has to some extent been able to erase the painful memories that Afghans have of the place. With the resumption of normal services in the country in recent times, nothing else perhaps represents the new face of Afghanistan better than the new-look Ghazi Stadium, a symbol of peace and progress, and a sign of how things have changed in the Asian nation over the years.
A beautiful country, geographically sandwiched between Pakistan and Iran, Afghanistan's history is blotted with devastating wars. Over the decades, peace has continuously eluded this scenic Asian nation, which has ensured that football, and all other sports, takes a backseat, in a country where people are more concerned about their daily bread than 'luxuries' like football. In recent times though, things have improved. With peace returning to various parts of Afghanistan, it is quite touching to see that the passion for the beautiful game among Afghans has not decreased one bit.
Over the years, the domestic football scenario in the country has improved significantly too. To top it all, the national team has made tremendous progress in the international scene over the course of the last decade. In December 2011, the Afghanistan national team reached the final of the SAFF Cup, achieving its best ever result in an international tournament. The team eventually lost 4-0 to hosts India in the final after a controversial red card to Afghan goalkeeper Hameedullah Yousefzari.
The Afghanistan national football team made its debut in the 1948 Olympics, bowing out in the first round. For almost 36 years, the Asian nation performed with little luck in the international fold, failing to qualify for any major events. With the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan in the late 70s, football took a backseat. It was the beginning of the hard times for the nation. After an international exile of 18 years following the civil war and the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan made its comeback too international football in 2002, taking part in the Busan Asian Games.
A year later, they defeated Kyrgyztan 2-1 in an Asian Cup qualifier, the country's first win in almost two decades. In the next few years, the national side had some promising results, appearing in the first two editions of the AFC Challenge Cup. The nation's run to the final of the 2011 SAFF Cup was a big step forward for Afghan football. Seven months later, the Lions of Khurasan reached its highest ever FIFA ranking, after being ranked 162 by the international governing body.
The large following for the game in the country had always called for a strong domestic league. For a few years, the Kabul Premier League remained as the country's biggest football league, with 12 clubs from the capital city vying for the title. However, the need of a bigger league involving all the regions of the country was felt. Keeping this in mind, the Roshan Afghan Premier League was launched last year. Brainchild of business tycoon, Saad Mohseni, the league is sponsored by a leading Afghan communications company, Roshan Telecoms, while the games are televised nationally in a network of channels owned by Mohseni's MOBY Group.
The launch of this league has certainly helped in generating more interest in the game in Afghanistan. With eight teams participating in it, the league has been an instant hit with the football fraternity in the country. The first edition of the APL was claimed by Toofan Harirod FC from the western region, after they beat Simorgh Alborz FC 2-1 in the final. In a country ravaged by wars, the APL has been able to create a sense of unity among the people. With the first season coming to an end, fans eagerly await the next edition of the league. For a country reeling in political instability, civil strife and poverty, the progress of football in Afghanistan is quite a story in itself. Bigger things await this South Asian nation in the footballing field.