Afghanistan is a country at war. Soccer offers a dose of happiness, an escape from the moment

Afghanistan is a country at war. Soccer offers a dose of happiness, an escape from the moment

Refugees Omid Popalzay (25) and Esmat Shanwary (27) learned to play soccer in the Netherlands. They are worried about the fate of their homeland Afghanistan, now that the Taliban is back in power.

Pray for us, says a message from Kabul from a fellow Afghanistan international. Footballer Omid Popalzay sits with Esmat Shanwary on a terrace in Nijmegen and shows the app. The two have lived almost a lifetime in the Netherlands, in Groesbeek and Uden.

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On YouTube, a lyrical commentator accompanies a goal scored by Popalzay for the national team last June for the World Cup qualifier against Oman. Popalzay takes a cross from the right nicely on the boot. 'A volley,' he says modestly. It was a match in Doha, because of the corona. Afghanistan lost to Oman, played a draw against India and Bangladesh, and are eliminated from the World Cup. Forecasts have already started on the cricket betting sites in India.

Shanwary, a player of Achilles'29 from Groesbeek and until a few years ago also a regular international, has not been in his native country since his flight in 2001. Popalzay, looking for a club now that his contract in Poland has been canceled, was there as recently as 2018, for a practice match with Palestine, when internationals from abroad and players from clubs in Afghanistan sometimes met for the first time. The stadium was sold out, including a section of cheering women. 'It was great. Afghanistan has been a war country for decades. Soccer, cricket or other distractions then offer a dose of happiness, an escape from the moment.'


Shanwary still has many relatives in Afghanistan. 'My mother watches the news all day. She is worried, especially about the fate of women. She has been a judge in Afghanistan. She taught girls, even in the first Taliban era from 1996 to 2001. There's a good chance that girls won't be allowed to go to school after the age of eight. That's too crazy for words.'

After the family fled, he ended up in an asylum seekers' center in Grave. We were here just during the attacks of September 11. That was a difficult period. As a child, you don't experience all that. Now I realize how restless Afghanistan has been through the years. And it seems pretty peaceful now because there are no atrocities. But nobody knows what happens to female presenters, men too for that matter, soccer teams, entertainers, or musicians when the media attention fades. He also watches Afghan channels. 'Everything seems to be propaganda. Officially it comes out that people are very happy with the Taliban, while on social media you see horrible images.' Popalzay: 'You don't know what the truth is anymore.'

Soccer brought the two friendship. Shanwary: 'In a shelter in Zwolle I saw soccer for the first time. I joined and thought: I want to do this. Omid and I got to know each other three years later, in the asylum seekers' center in Grave. Popalzay: 'A van from NEC picked Esmat up every day, which was great to see. He with one of those NEC bags over his shoulder. I looked up to him.' Popalzay still throws everything at soccer, Shanwary is back with Achilles'29, which played in the first division, went bankrupt, and started again. He also runs an energy company.

Progressive Afghanistan

His fiancée is Dutch. An uncle of hers traveled as a backpacker in the 1970s to what was then a progressive Afghanistan. 'When I talk to him about it, he always says he's never been to such a beautiful country.'

Shanwary saw friend Anoush Dastgir on the talk show Op1 on Tuesday. He is also a refugee in the Netherlands, the national coach of Afghanistan moreover. Dastgir also criticized the Afghans themselves. What have they done in the last twenty years to improve life? Corrupt governments enriched themselves and allowed discontent among the poor people to fester. Shanwary: 'Billions have been invested in weapons for the Afghan army. In the end, you see mostly weapons in the hands of the Taliban. The issue is so complicated. Everyone has interests, and Afghanistan is very strategically located. I also wonder for what purpose the West trained people. As quickly as everything has gone, in a few weeks, virtually without violence; that raises questions: to what extent has everyone been under one roof?'

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But the country continues to draw. Shanwary: 'My dream is to return one day. I played all my internationals elsewhere: in Laos, Bahrain, Dubai, and Iran. In Iran there are thousands of Afghan refugees, reported They sold personal items to be able to buy a ticket. Seeing that passion made my love grow. We know Afghanistan only as a country of war. From stories of our parents, or from photographs, we know how it once was.'