A Resilient Team for a Broken Nation

BELEK, Turkey — Anoush Dastgir stands out as the hardest-working man in soccer, however by Saturday, his job had taken a toll.

Dastgir, the coach of Afghanistan’s males’s nationwide group, was sitting in an empty restaurant on the lodge the place he and his group had been getting ready for an exhibition match towards Indonesia. It was 11 p.m., and Dastgir was battling what gave the impression of a heavy chilly. Which wasn’t shocking, given he now had a dozen jobs to do.

Coaching a nationwide soccer group is hard sufficient wherever, however teaching Afghanistan has lengthy had distinctive challenges.

It is likely one of the world’s poorest international locations and a place the place civil battle and Taliban rule as soon as stored the nationwide group from enjoying a recreation for virtually 20 years. The nation is taken into account so unsafe, the truth is, that FIFA, soccer’s world governing physique, has lengthy banned its groups from enjoying at residence. Most of the time, that hardly mattered: Afghanistan is ranked 152nd on the planet. And it has by no means certified for a main event.

Still, circumstances received even more durable over the summer time, when the Taliban swept again into Kabul, the Afghan authorities collapsed and its president, Ashraf Ghani — to not point out tens of hundreds of his countrymen and ladies — fled the country.

Dastgir misplaced entry to a part of his group and half his employees within the chaos. Two employees members are actually in refugee camps in Qatar. Two others are in Afghanistan, keen to depart. His roster is populated virtually totally by Afghan refugees, or the sons of refugees, who’ve discovered shelter within the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, Sweden and past over time, fleeing the assorted conflicts which have Afghanistan for the reason that 1980s. But a few nonetheless spend time in Afghanistan, and this 12 months even doing that turned a concern.

One of Dastgir’s most necessary gamers, Noor Husin, who left for Britain when he was six, was within the northern metropolis of Mazar-i-Sharif in July because the Taliban approached. “I was terrified to be honest,” he mentioned. “Because every day there was news, they’re getting closer, they’re in the outskirts of the city. And I was thinking, surely not. You just didn’t think it was going to happen.”

Husin managed to get to Kabul and scramble overseas, however he — like lots of his teammates — thought the nationwide group was completed. “Everyone thought, this is the end, the end of everything,” he mentioned.

Dastgir, although, was decided to maintain it alive, to have it proceed to serve, he mentioned, as a uncommon image of unity in a nation typically divided alongside ethnic or linguistic strains. So a few weeks in the past, he picked up the telephone and organized a pleasant match — the primary for the reason that Taliban took over — towards Indonesia. That was the simple half. He then needed to discover a web site for the sport, prepare flights and visas for gamers and supply coronavirus assessments for everybody. With the Afghan soccer federation’s checking account frozen, Dastgir efficiently petitioned FIFA for assist financing the journey.

With no equipment man, Dastgir additionally needed to ship 450 kilos of coaching gear himself, after which persuade his brother-in-law to assist him wash it. He purchased soccer balls, organized referees and — with out a communications group — promoted the sport on his non-public social media accounts. He even negotiated a broadcasting contract to verify the utmost variety of individuals again in Afghanistan may watch the match. And then, with all that performed, he nonetheless needed to discover time to educate the group.

But as midnight neared within the lodge restaurant on Saturday, there was nonetheless one necessary concern to resolve: Which flag would the group fly?

At 31, Dastgir is likely one of the youngest coaches in world soccer. Born in Kabul, he escaped the nation’s civil battle along with his household shortly after Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989. He was simply a few months previous, and grew up in Pakistan after which India earlier than settling within the Netherlands.

In Europe, he discovered Dutch and was scouted by a main membership, NEC Nijmegen. He was finally referred to as up for the Afghan nationwide group however appeared in a handful of video games earlier than a knee damage ended his enjoying profession.

“My coaches said, ‘You have to start coaching,’ because as a player I was kind of leader of the team,” he mentioned. His first alternative to guide Afghanistan got here in 2016, when a overseas coach didn’t flip up for a recreation amid a contract dispute.

“The players said, ‘I think Anoush can handle it,’” Dastgir recalled. He misplaced that recreation however the group had performed effectively. The subsequent time the publish got here open, in 2018, he was given the job.

By then, he was on the hunt for Afghan gamers. Many had been found among the many huge Afghan diaspora, refugees and their kids unfold world wide. When a match towards Palestine in Kabul was organized in 2018, the primary worldwide recreation to be performed in Afghanistan in years, Dastgir referred to as in lots of his discoveries.

“I wanted to have these players in Afghanistan to feel the country, to see the people, because most of them are born outside the country,” he mentioned. “So if you tell them play for your country, they are like, ‘What is that?’”

Even now, the group’s place as a seen multicultural establishment reveals up in coaching periods.

Instructions had been shouted out in Dutch and Pashto. Encouragement was supplied in German, Dari and English. Sometimes, Dastgir switched languages midsentence. “My first captain is Tajik,” he mentioned. “My second captain is Pashtun. My third captain is Hazara.” Two of his gamers, the brothers Adam and David Najem, had been born in New Jersey.

Still, because the match neared, the questions of the flag and the anthem remained unresolved. This was not a choice to be taken flippantly. The Taliban’s white flag, with the Shahada — the Muslim declaration of religion — printed on it, has changed the inexperienced, crimson and black tricolor over Afghanistan’s presidential palace. And because the Taliban have instituted a broad ban on music, the nationwide anthem has successfully been outlawed.

Dastgir knew that enjoying it and flying the previous flag could be controversial; the nation’s males’s cricket group was rebuked by a Taliban chief after doing so on the Twenty20 World Cup. He knew his alternative may cost him his job or worse.

“I’m not afraid of getting fired,” Dastgir mentioned. “I’m the head coach of the national team of 37 million Afghans. I’m not the national team coach of the Taliban regime, or the regime of Ghani. We never did it for the government. We did it for the people.”

No one in Afghanistan’s camp was certain if any supporters would really come to look at them play in Belek, a coastal city close to Antalya.

Stadium officers frightened about coronavirus restrictions had been assuaged when Dastgir agreed to pay for safety out of his personal pocket. There was additionally the difficulty of whether or not the Turkish police may show to be a deterrent. At least 300,000 Afghan refugees and migrants have discovered shelter in Turkey lately, and lots of are undocumented. But because the daylight light and kickoff approached, lots of of followers lined up exterior the stadium gate.

“I want to show I am Afghan,” mentioned Mursal, an 18-year-old pupil wrapped in a massive Afghan flag however cautious sufficient to say no to offer her final identify. She had fled to Turkey 4 years in the past, after her father was killed in Afghanistan, and had discovered few alternatives to wave the Afghan flag since she arrived. “It’s our flag. You don’t have another flag. Just this flag, and no one can change it.”

Six hundred supporters — the restrict agreed upon with stadium officers — quickly streamed in, filling the stadium’s one lengthy grandstand.

A jiffy earlier than kickoff, the groups lined up at midfield. In entrance of them, two of Afghanistan’s substitutes unfurled a massive inexperienced, crimson and black flag, the one Dastgir had carried with him to Belek. The anthem performed, a second beamed to hundreds of thousands of Afghans again residence. No one was there to take the normal prematch picture: The squad’s official photographer escaped to Portugal months in the past.

The recreation was frantic, soundtracked by the fixed noise of the Afghan followers. Dastgir, dressed all in black, calmly gave tactical directions. Late within the second half, he summoned Omid Popalzay, a Dutch-raised midfielder final seen enjoying in Poland’s fourth tier. In the 85th minute, a few moments after getting into the sport as a substitute, Popalzay scored. Minutes later, the ultimate whistle blew. Afghanistan had received, and the followers erupted with pleasure.

One fan jumped 12 toes down onto the operating monitor surrounding the sector hoping to get a selfie, however he was intercepted by the police and frog-marched again by his neck. One participant, Norlla Amiri, climbed onto the shoulders of a teammate so his toddler son might be handed all the way down to him.

Other followers threw their cellphones to the gamers, asking for selfies. Many needed photos with Faysal Shayesteh, a 30-year-old midfielder who has had a globe-trotting skilled profession since transferring to the Netherlands as a boy.

Nearly all Afghan followers knew Shayesteh due to his tattoos, together with the one throughout his chest that reveals Kabul’s skyline beneath a fighter jet and an assault helicopter, every bombarding the town with crimson hearts. Above his left breast had been two GPS coordinates: The first is for Hengelo, the town in japanese Holland the place he grew up. The different is Kabul, the place he was born.

“If I talk about it I get emotional,” he mentioned, holding again tears. “Because I know what the people in Afghanistan are going through. And I know this is the only thing that makes them happy, winning a game for the national team. This is the only thing they have, so I’m very happy.”

Dastgir watched all of it unfold from the again, filming a few of it on his telephone to publish on his Instagram account. No one had performed extra to make the second occur than him.

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