Teenage boys from Kabul on a winning missionSeptember 5, 2017
NEW DELHI: The teenage footballers of Istiqlal School practice on a field bereft of a single blade of grass. But that doesn’t even qualify as a problem for the hardy bunch from Kabul. In the winter of 2014, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked the school auditorium during a performance. At least seven died in the explosion.
Two months ago, Bakhtash Ahmed lost his uncle in a bomb blast. Fellow midfielder Abdullah Ali, the only player who speaks English, lost a sister and a brother in another terror incident.
Few countries have been wounded by war like Afghanistan over the past four decades. Bloodied by a fractured body politic, life can be uncertain in a country where explosions in crowded markets are routine and even hospitals have been targets of missiles.
“Every other person in our country might have a tragic story to tell. Too many people have died for us to remember. But we don’t let misfortunes rule our lives,” says former Afghanistan international and manager Khaled Delawar in halting Hindi and English.
The Istiqlal (also written as Esteqlal) team is walking the talk. Coached by Wahiddulah Wahidi, the team entered the sub-junior boys (u-14) final of the Subroto Cup on Sunday overcoming the equally talented Govt Chhawngfiang Middle School, Kolasib, Mizoram in a nervy tie-breaker. They now face Govt Model High School, Sector-36, Chandigarh in the title clash on Wednesday.
One of the stars in the Afghan show is Ali Zahidi, a 13-year-old striker with a gift for dribbling. A shopkeeper’s son, he has scored eight of the team’s nine goals, including two hat-tricks. “I am a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo,” he laughs.
“We have a lot of raw talent. But there is no professional football in Afghanistan. We have poverty too. Players just stop turning up for practice one day because parents ask them to take up a job,” says Wahidi.
“Most affluent Afghans left for Europe and the USA many years ago. The boys largely come from modest backgrounds. We can’t even afford to give them tea or biscuits after practice. But they work hard, very hard,” says Delawar, whose relatives live in Lajpat Nagar, the sprawling south Delhi colony that teems with Afghan stores and restaurants.