Afghans aim to continue revival after total revamp

Last October, following a string of defeats at the Asian Games in Incheon, the Afghanistan football team were disbanded.

But a year later, backed by new coach Slaven Skeledzic, a newly assembled side are slowly rising from the ashes.

The 43-year-old German said: "In short, everything has changed. The training changed, people changed, the football changed."

At the Asian Games last year, their Under-23 side lost all three of their group matches, to Bangladesh (0-1), Hong Kong (1-2) and Uzbekistan (0-5). The Afghanistan Football Federation felt that it was time for a complete makeover.

The revival began with Skeledzic's appointment in February. He provided leadership and organisation that were largely missing in the team.

Team captain Djelaluddin Sharityar, a 32-year-old defender, is the most experienced player in the squad with 37 caps.

He has been with the national team for eight years and has witnessed a grand transformation in the Afghan camp.

"Previously, we didn't know what tactics to play. We just came together, without proper jerseys and proper training, and did whatever we felt like doing," said Sharityar, who is proficient in English, German and his native Pashto .

He credits Skeledzic for lifting Afghan football out of the doldrums.

"We have a professional coach with a lot of football knowledge and experience.

"He knows how to choose good players," he added.

To rebuild the team from scratch, Skeledzic conducted two trials - one in the capital Kabul for the locals, and another session in Frankfurt for the Afghan diaspora scattered across Europe.

He said: "Before I came in, the team could be (made up of) friends, neighbours or cousins. (It was) not a serious team."

Only about a quarter of the squad of 25 live in Afghanistan.

The rest are based overseas, with the bulk in the lower leagues in Europe and even Thailand.

Sharityar, for instance, was just seven when he left Afghanistan with his parents for Germany in 1990. He later joined Bundesliga side Wolfsburg's youth team and now plays for Manama in the Bahrain Premier League.

"As a refugee growing up in Germany, the level of football is so high, and we could join the football academy," said Sharityar, who supports Germany and whose favourite football player is Manchester United midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Even though things are looking better, the team are still dogged by domestic problems, forcing them to conduct centralised training in neighbouring states like Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain.

Skeledzic said: "It's too dangerous (to train in Afghanistan). Plus, the facilities are not good."

Sharityar is optimistic that his side can make up for lost time.

Having been crushed 0-6 by Japan in Teheran last month, they have a chance to make an impact when they face hosts Singapore in their World Cup Group E qualifier at the National Stadium tonight.

He said: "When the Taleban left, that's when the national team started again.

"We have missed 20 to 30 years of football in Afghanistan and missed a lot of talented players.

"So now, we have to work a lot harder to catch up with the rest.

"I might not make it to the World Cup but I hope that my nieces or children can one day."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline 'Afghans aim to continue revival after total revamp'. Print Edition | Subscribe