A former British army major will land in Kabul this morning on a unique mission: to kick-start football in Afghanistan. Michael Moriarty, a 41-year-old Londoner who served in Kosovo, is on a Football Association-backed four-month assignment aimed at setting up a new structure for the game in a country which has suffered two decades of war and strife.
Moriarty is not a footballer himself. "I can kick a ball about but I haven't played for years, so my personal experience of the game is not particularly impressive," he smiled at a farewell gathering for him in the FA's Soho Square headquarters. As for supporting a particular team, he diplomatically offered, "Kabul FC".
It is the skills of diplomacy and organ-isation, rather than love of football or the ability to play it, which landed Moriarty the job. Plus a willingness to base himself in one of the planet's high-risk locations. "It was bloody difficult to find somebody to fulfil this role," said the FA head of football affairs, David Davies. "The queue of applicants didn't stretch down Oxford Street." Moriarty had got the job, Davies added, "because of his organisational skills, military background and temperament."
Having collected a bodyguard and a translator on arrival, Moriarty will link up with a German coach, Holger Obermann, who is in charge of organising the playing side of Afghanistan's football revival. The FA, German FA, Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation have put together an international task force, while the German and British football authorities, as well as governments, are working together closely on the project, a partnership which came about, rather bizarrely, as a result of their rivalry over the staging of the 2006 World Cup.
Moriarty will have his base of operations at Kabul's Olympic stadium, the former scene of public executions under the Taliban regime and the one arena in the city capable of staging football, which it does virtually on a round-the-clock basis, day in, day out.
As well as incredible enthusiasm, there already exists a rudimentary form of competition in the country, mainly in Kabul which has two divisions of 18 and 16 teams respectively, as well as about 90 street teams. "But they have no strips, except what they can borrow, so it's pretty basic," Moriarty said. "It is too early for me to say yet, not least because of the split of the country along ethnic lines, whether it is practical to put together something like a Premier League. These are the things I need to look at."
Moriarty has never been to Afghanistan, though he stood at the top of the Khyber Pass and looked into the country while on a trekking trip along the border with Pakistan. He feels personal involvement because his grandfather, Gerald Moriarty, was a colonel in the Indian Army and served on the North-West Frontier.
"My greatest emotion about this job is one of excitement," he said. "It isn't everybody who gets the chance to go there. The place is legendary and has been for a couple of centuries, at least in the British mind." When it is pointed out that not everybody actually wants to go there, he concedes "a degree of anxiety", adding: "I am well aware of those problems, but there is some comfort in having personal security provided. But the best protection is simply to be aware of what's going on around you and to take the necessary precautions."
The FA's involvement with Afghan-istan began when, in February 2002, Lawrie McMenemy and Gary Mabbutt helped organise a game between a local team and the armed forces in Kabul. It drew a crowd of 30,000, with many more locked out. Moriarty's task is to build on that involvement and, though his agreement is for four months, he would be happy to extend his stay. "But at the end of my initial spell I would hope to have in place the basic administrative structures to support an Afghan football federation itself.
"As a challenge, it is right up there with some of the more difficult ones I have undertaken as a soldier. One of the great advantages of most things you do in the army is that you have an opportunity to look at it first, or somebody has done it for you. Here I will be going in cold, so that adds another dimension."
Davies, who was part of the FA mission to Kabul in February last year, said: "I don't think we have an ultimate goal, as such, because some of the work is worthwhile in itself. The bottom line is, do we believe football can be helpful in bringing the country together? Some of us, with a degree of faith, say yes. The great thing football has going for it is that it transcends other barriers."