The beauty of rugby is it can bring people together from across political, social and religious divides to recognise and celebrate achievement, determination and a basic human commonality.
In war-torn Afghanistan, a country blighted by conflict for decade upon decade, the people are beginning to embrace rugby as a way of providing moments of joy in a bleak and disjointed society.
We spoke to Afghanistan Rugby Federation’s CEO and vice president Asad Ziar, who helped reintroduce the game to the country as recently as 2011.
When one considers the difficulties that many emerging nations go through in building the foundations for greater sporting futures, their problems are nothing in comparison to the challenges that Asad Ziar and his colleagues faced and continue to do so.
“Bringing sport, especially a new sport like rugby is very challenging and there is no support for the development of new sports. We started rugby in 2011 but we still do not have a single rugby playing ground in the whole country.”
Ziar’s journey is akin to conquering Everest and then some. Yet whilst the upper echelons of the rugby globe seem to be becoming more and more obsessed with funding, costs and finance, the Afghans simply do not have this luxury. For them conquering this rugby summit comes from a brilliant passion, unbridled enthusiasm and an unwavering resolve to succeed.
“Countries with millions of dollars of funds allocated for the development of rugby did not inspire me at all but the Fijians really did and I believe that rugby does not need a huge financial support to develop in Afghanistan.”
However, Afghanistan is not without its own sporting heritage and for centuries the Afghan people have played ‘Buzkashi’, a sport with some similarities to rugby.
“Afghanistan has indigenous sports which bear some resemblance to rugby football. One of these games is called Buzkashi, which has been compared to a cross between rugby and polo and uses a dead goat or sheep as the ball. The goal of a player is to grab the carcass of a headless goat or sheep and then get it clear of the other players and pitch it across the goal line or into a target circle or vat.”
Ziar informs me that the game has even been referred to as ‘Sheep Rugby’ by the Society for Creative Anachronism since the 1970s (it’s true, look it up). So why then would the people of Afghanistan want rugby when they already have their own cultural traditions?
“I understood that buying a horse cost a huge amount of money and that is the reason the game of Buzkashi is dying in the country, but everyone can afford to find a rugby ball and play rugby instead of Buzkashi.”
European influence has permeated Afghanistan society for centuries, sometimes with the best of intentions but often otherwise; in this case the promotion of rugby once has provided an element of accessibility to a population that is living in such an uncertain and unstable environment.
“Afghans are physically fit for almost all sports and they love to be part of a sporting team. Participation in sport is still very rare and that is because of the lack of proper playing grounds and security issues.”
But Ziar and the rest of the Afghanistan Rugby Federation are working tirelessly to manoeuvre around the many obstacles that lie in their path to see rugby grow as a way forward for bringing Afghans together. Right now, rugby is really only played in the capital city of Kabul and its surrounding villages, but Ziar is keen to see the sport taken across the nation in order to bring unity to a brutally divided society.
“Our aim is to support youngsters who participate in sport against a backdrop of violence, conflict and suffering. The Federation does not make judgments about the war, or about any individual’s participation in the war, but simply hopes to encourage young people to do something positive, fun and competitive, in the hope that they will avoid becoming part of the violence and avoid the temptation of drugs.
“Sport is a powerful tool to promote peace, tolerance and understanding, bringing people together across boundaries, cultures and religions. Its intrinsic values such as teamwork, fairness, discipline and respect are understood all over the world and can be utilised in the advancement of solidarity and social cohesion. We always witness love, passion and brotherhood in rugby and we feel it will help our youngsters to be united and respect each other.”
When Ziar looks back on his best moments with Afghanistan Rugby so far, he points to significant wins that the national team had over international rivals and more established rugby nations.
“It was November 2013 when Afghanistan was placed second with 9 points with wins over UAE (33-0) and Lebanon (22-5) in the West Asia Rugby Sevens Tournament in Al Ain – UAE. Afghanistan Rugby Federation is an associate member while UAE and Lebanon are Full Members of Asia Rugby and in UAE’s case World Rugby.”
Those wins were a tremendous milestone for rugby across the country, but results that are very much in the past. Ziar is focussed on the here-and-now and the future that he envisions for both the sport he adores and the country he calls home.
“We now have 14 rugby clubs and the short-term goal is that we start school rugby next year. The medium goal is that in the coming two years we have rugby actively in at least five provinces of Afghanistan.
“The federation desperately needs a rugby academy and rugby playing fields which will enable the federation to boost the number of participants and have more and more professional rugby players to feed the national teams. Our long-term plan is that each and every Afghan should be familiar with rugby throughout the country.”
Rugby might only provide moments of bliss or fragile fragments of joy, but it is slowly making a difference in a society that has been so bitterly divided for much of its recent history. Inspirational men like Asad Ziar should be celebrated for their selfless devotion to a cause that goes far beyond simply sport.
In this context rugby can truly transform a nation almost destroyed by conflict; that power to go beyond the divides is what makes the sport so special.
You can find out more about Asad’s work by clicking here.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena