Afghans' road to Brazil riven with potholes

Politics almost derailed their World Cup qualifier in Palestine today and getting there was nightmare

If the route to their World Cup first-round preliminary qualifier against Palestine today is anything to go by, the road to 2014 will be long for the young hopefuls of the Afghan national football team. Starting early on Friday, they left their training base in Kabul and criss-crossed West Asia on a journey that they hope will take them to Brazil in three years' time.

"We left Kabul and flew to Dubai, then Delhi, on to Amman, and now we are here," the Afghanistan captain, Israfeel Kohistani, said yesterday afternoon. "Here" was a neon-lit Israeli waiting-room at the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the Occupied Territories.

Despite the intervention of the Jordanian government and the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis saw fit to detain the team for an hour – one final and unnecessary chapter on their epic journey. Finally the tired players arrived at Ramallah's Caesar Hotel, just 22 hours before kick-off, and went straight to an open training session.

Kohistani, along with six of his national team-mates, plays for Kabul Bank in the Afghan Premier League, one of the wealthier clubs. He says the standard there is improving,and they have been helped by the introduction of artificial pitches.

Afghanistan lie 166th in the Fifa rankings, wedged between Chinese Taipei and Burma. Despite it being their highest ranking and the team becoming stronger, Kohistani says locals are impatient for success. "Afghanistan is a new team in world football, but they get angry when we lose. This is not good for us.

"Of course we feel duty-bound to give people a lift given the situation. We are trying to be a good team."

Last week's stopover in Kabul was the first time a number of the national squad had stepped on Afghan soil, drawn as they are from the Afghan refugee diaspora. The star is the US-based Mohammad Yusef Mashriqi, who is affiliated to the reborn New York Cosmosteam, currently vying for an MLS franchise. Others in the squad play in the lower leagues of Swedish and German football.

Every step of the way has been fraught with complications for the Afghan squad, and for an uneasy period last week it was feared that the game might not take place. Hamid Karzai's government were understood to be unhappy with the match, suggesting that recognition of Palestine's national team would be de facto recognition of Israel – surely one of the more perverse arguments in sports politics.

Palestine took the first leg 2-0 last Wednesday in neutral Tajikistan, Kabul being deemed too dangerous for a Fifa-sanctioned match.

For the Palestinians too, the game assumes great importance. Thirteen years after their admission into Fifa (virtually Sepp Blatter's first act as president), Palestine are finally playing their first World Cup match on home soil. As the country inches towards a declaration of statehood, the apparatus of a nation state assumes huge importance, and football is a hugely powerful symbol. The Palestinians' idea is the more state institutions they possess, the more irresistible their case to the world becomes.

"It's primarily a matter of sports justice. In the Fifa statutes since the start of time, they insist that every team has a right to play at home," says Jérôme Champagne, an advisor to the Palestinian FA and Olympic Committee and one-time aide to Blatter. In March the Olympic team played a London 2012 qualifier here, and afterwards the Asian Football Confederation president, Mohamed bin Hammam, pledged that all of Palestine's club and international matchesunder their jurisdiction would be played on home soil.

But despite these inroads, complications hinder progress. The 50ft-high "Peace Wall" stands just yards away from the 12,000 capacity Al-Ram Stadium, a permanent reminder that this remains one of the most volatile places on earth. During Israel's 2007 West Bank incursions they used the stadium to park their tanks.

For the Olympic qualifier a score of players were prevented by the Israelis from crossing between Gaza and the West Bank. IOC mediation has since eased some of these impediments, but problems remain. On Friday Roberto Bishara, a Chilean-based Palestinian international, and the centre-back Omar Jarun were held at the border with Jordan for four and six hours respectively.

But despite the difficulties facing these two international football minnows there remains a match to be played this afternoon, with a second preliminary round against Thailand awaiting the winner in three weeks.

"We have come here to beat Palestine," says Kohistani. "We need three goals, so it's tough. But I respect and trust my team to beat Palestine."

Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor