More than two decades of war and strife have relegated Afghanistan to the bottom of the world rankings. With the overthrow of the Taliban though, things are slowly changing in the country at the Western edge of the Himalayas
Just weeks away from the opening match of the 2006 World Cup, the eyes of football-crazed Afghans will be glued to television sets for the world's largest sporting event. Yet, it is only a dream that the country will be playing in a World Cup in the future.
The task of Afghanistan national team soccer coach Klaus Stärk is not easy, and certainly not always satisfying. For over a year, Stärk has been leading the Afghan squad in what is a project with two objectives since the overthrow of the Taliban: one is development-oriented, trying to bring some kind of normality back to the country that has seen little of it the past 25 years.
Secondly, to actually create a side that can compete internationally. The enthusiasm on the players' part is there, but world-class quality is lacking according to Stärk.
"In general you can say that the team is stable defensively. They create opportunities, but finishing it off by scoring is a big problem."
The shambles of a team
When Stärk arrived in Kabul over 18 months ago, he was confronted with a shambles of a team. Tactics on the pitch were practically non-existent, so the 53-year-old coach from southern Germany had to start with the basics – practicing crosses, using the wings to attack, and positioning on the field.
"If you had seen this team nine months ago, and compared it to now, then the difference is like night and day! They've made tons of progress. It looks more or less like soccer now. I'd have to say, if I were coaching a squad at the county level, it wouldn't look much different."
There are many things that Afghanistan is lacking that is mandatory for good soccer players and teams. The infrastructure is virtually non-existent, but Ali Askar Lali, who played for the Afghan national team 26 years ago before fleeing to Germany, knows that the players have the qualities needed to be good, if not great.
"There is enough talent. We have talented players," Lali says. "But we're missing the infrastructure. We don't have any proper grounds. And we are lacking proper coaches."
The FIFA world rankings
But even with Klaus Stärk at the helm, there isn't a league system to support and feed the national team with young potential.
Yet there has been a modest upwards trend. In the FIFA world rankings, Afghanistan is listed as 188th – ahead of sixteen other teams. Stärk knows that it could take at least two more decades to put together a squad that could make it to a World Cup finals.
But Afghanis like 17-year-old fullback Islam Hamiri haven't buried their hopes, even if they think it is only a long shot to play on the world stage.
"That was always my dream. Since I was six, I have prayed to Allah to play for the national team. Now I've done it. It's a great feeling."
John Kluempers/Christoph Heinzle
© Deutsche Welle 2006