Blooming in hostile territories
A few years ago, they used to cut off the hands of petty thieves and execute criminals at the dusty, pebble-strewn National Stadium in Kabul. Today those killing fields have turned into a field of dreams for aspiring rugby players in war-torn Afghanistan, a band of whom on Friday had their first taste of international rugby in Dubai.
Five months ago, as military helicopters droned above, Aziz Ahmed and a small group of pioneers concentrated on the task at hand, passing a rugby ball, and tried to forget a grim past when the Taliban ruled the country by fear. The game of rugby was an ideal outlet to vent their feelings.
Those dismal days seemed a distant memory for Aziz, scrum-half of the pioneering Afghanistan national team, which ran out to play the United Arab Emirates Shaheen - themselves a developing side of Emirati nationals - in a three-match seven-a-side series, the final one being the curtain-raiser to the Hong Kong v UAE Top Five encounter in the HSBC Asian Five Nations.
'We are honoured to play for Afghanistan and, Inshallah [God willing], we will win and make our country proud. We have improved a lot in recent months but we know we still have much to learn about this game. But we will play our best, work hard and see what happens,' Aziz said before the historic moment for his country.
From just three players late last year, Afghanistan rugby has started to blossom like the desert flowers which push through the country's arid soil after every rain shower. Today, there are more than 200 players, mostly based in the capital. Aziz and nine others were the lucky ones, chosen by the fledgling Afghanistan Rugby Federation (ARF) to represent the country for the first time.
'On day one we had three players, on day two we had seven and then on the third day 15 players showed up. It really grew as it went on and the game is now developing a life of its own, especially in Kabul,' says ARF technical adviser Steve Brooking.
'By the end of 2011, we were in the position to stage a national sevens tournament. Eight teams and 120 players were there and now we have a national squad. Up until now, we've been playing at the Nato base in Kabul against military teams. That's why this tour to Dubai is so big for us - we will get to play against another country.'
Brooking knows what it is like to be a rugby messiah. A former member of the British Foreign Office for 20 years, he was involved in the early days of rugby on the mainland. He mentored former national coach Zheng Hongjun at the China Agricultural University in Beijing. Now he is facing another frontier.
'This week in Dubai is important for their development,' said Brooking, who now works for the United Nations in Afghanistan. 'They will see 15s rugby for the first time, they will mix with players from other countries who have more knowledge of the game and I expect them to pick up so much that way. It is great for them as players.'
Despite once being ruled by the British, rugby never took hold in Afghanistan unlike in India or Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where it was played as early as the 19th century. It is not because the Afghans are squeamish about a contact sport. On the contrary, they love being physical with their national sport, buzkashi, which is tantamount to rugby with horses - just that instead of a ball, they pass the freshly butchered carcass of a headless goat.
'They're not afraid of the physical contact of the game,' said Brooking.
Afghanistan Rugby Federation chief executive Asad Ziar said: 'We're a rough, tough people. We're physically set for this game, which is very energetic and fast.'
The war has made things difficult for the young squad. While most of the players come from Kabul or the eastern city of Jalalabad, attacks in Herat last year led to the ARF having to cancel training clinics. But life, and rugby, goes on.
'The idea of rugby was started by a group of Afghans, who had seen it in the UK and they thought it would be popular at home,' said the 48-year-old Brooking. 'They pushed it when they got home to Kabul. They thought it would suit the Afghan people because it is a tough, physical and athletic sport, which depends on good teamwork, strength and passion.'
Last November, Afghanistan became an associate member of the Asian Rugby Football Union (ARFU), being welcomed warmly at its council meeting in Vientiane, Laos. It was also decided there that the new member would get its first taste of international rugby in Dubai.
'We are very optimistic for Afghanistan. Since things have calmed down a bit in the country, the game has really taken off, and they have become the latest country in rugby's explosion across Asia,' ARFU secretary-general Ross Mitchell said.
The Asian governing body was set up in 1968 with eight founding members, including Hong Kong. By 2000, it had only increased to 12. But since then there has been a huge expansion: there are now 28 members, of which three - Lebanon, Jordan and Afghanistan - are associates.
'This is mainly because of the International Rugby Board's desire to increase its membership as they pushed for the game's inclusion in the Olympics,' Mitchell said. 'The IRB wanted to show that rugby is a global game and started to channel more funds and resources to Asia.'
From 2009 to 2012, the IRB pumped GBP8.7 million (HK$109 million) into Asia.
'We are investing to ensure that more men, women and children can enjoy a sport that brings people together through values of integrity, respect and solidarity,' IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset said.
The entry of HSBC as a principal sponsor of Asian rugby in 2008 - the bank also sponsors the Hong Kong national team - also helped the game's development massively. Guaranteed annual funding helped push the boundaries of the game across the board.
'We cannot stress how important the support of HSBC has been in the development of the game across Asia,' Mitchell said. 'We have moved from a position just a few years ago where individual unions played international fixtures against each other on an ad hoc basis to now having an Asian Five Nations in place.
'This tournament provides a structured league system whereby every union in Asia can play a minimum of between two to four international games each year, all funded by [the] ARFU. An example of how important that has been to develop the game has been demonstrated by the meteoric rise of the Philippines, which four years ago was in Division Four and which has now just won promotion into the Top Five of Asia.'
For Afghanistan, the journey is just beginning. But momentum is gathering. Last December, the British embassy in Kabul sponsored Afghanistan's first official rugby tournament - a national sevens. On Friday, Aziz and his teammates had been transported to Dubai, as if on a flying carpet, to play sevens. In addition, the team are preparing to travel to the UK to play at the Bournemouth Sevens in June as well as other fixtures against local English teams.
'For us it is all about enjoyment. We play for each other and we love to play rugby,' said the 25-year-old Aziz in Dubai after an HSBC/ARFU coaching session with the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union head of performance and national coach Dai Rees. 'The future of rugby in Afghanistan is very bright. I would like to see the sport grow there. I think if the people get to know this game, they will love it. It could become very popular ... all over the country.'
Cricket has shown it can become a unifying force in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, just before the Afghanistan national team played their first one-day international against a test country, the Pakistan team received a good-luck message from the Taliban. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was also on the phone for match updates.
Cricket, which started just over a decade ago, has already become an international hit, with Afghanistan now having secured ODI status and qualified for the past two ICC Twenty20 World Cups. The world of rugby will be watching with bated breath and hoping Aziz and his men can follow in those footsteps soon.
'This tour means a lot for Afghan rugby. It's a big step for the development of the game in Afghanistan, and will encourage a lot of youngsters to play the game,' said ARF vice-president Abdul Khalil Bik.