‘I am a national coach of 39 million Afghans and not the Taliban’

The conditions are almost perfect in the stadium of the Gloria Sports Arena in the Turkish seaside resort of Antalya. Under a sultry evening sun and on a beautiful football field, the Afghan mens football team of Dutch national coach Anoush Dastgir (31) starts his training camp. Its the first time theyve been together since the Taliban seized power in Kabul in August. The players cant wait to play football together again, but first have to run a few laps before the warm-up.

After the rounds of the cinder track, the patience of the players is put to the test extra. The president of the Afghan Football Association, Mohammad Yousef Kargar, wants to address the selection. Hes coming across a message from the new in power. โ€œThe Taliban supports you, they support football.โ€ International Faysal Shayesteh (30) cant suppress a smile. He looks around and sees only fellow internationals who have fled from groups such as the Taliban. Shayesteh, just like Dastgir, ended up in the Netherlands as a refugee. The team mainly consists of players who once fled Afghanistan to corners of the world, from America to Australia.

Ethnic groups do work together in football.

Two interland periods had to skip the team due to the political turmoil in the country. For a long time, the focus was on evacuating football players, sometimes complete female teams. But the call from Afghanistan to see the national football team playing mens team is getting bigger and bigger. The Dastgir team is extremely popular in Afghanistan, is on the threshold to place itself for the Asian Cup for the first time in history. A tournament that one billion people watch, that is where the Afghans want to see their Lions of Khorasan, as the national team is called, shine. The team is a symbol of a changed Afghanistan, in which players from different ethnic groups such as the Pashtons, Tajikks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, unlike politics, can work together and achieve success. โ€œYou still have your voice, so let the world hear our voices tooโ€, Shayesteh receives such messages via Instagram from Afghans.

Turkey correspondent Mitra Nazar looked up the Afghan team in Antalya:

On Tuesday, Afghanistan is practicing against Indonesia, an international international where players sing the national anthem and the national flag is hoisted. But what flag will that be, that of Afghanistan or the Taliban? โ€œI am a national coach of 39 million Afghans, I am not the national coach of the Taliban regime. We hoist the flag of Afghanistan,โ€ says national coach Dastgir. The night before, this was discussed by the national team during an emotional team meeting. The consequences, if any, are not tender. โ€œIt may be that we are no longer welcome in Afghanistan, while almost everyone still has family there. That is very intense, but we were lucky to be able to flee, and have it right. We feel responsible for the people who are now having a hard time. If I am not allowed to be a national coach after this, I can leave with a head raised.โ€

Everyone should be able to watch

The first precautions have already been taken. Clothing and training pills do not go back to Afghanistan, but are taken to the Netherlands, so that the national team is less dependent on the Taliban. Dastgir travels back to the Netherlands with 200 kilos of extra luggage. Due to the chaos in the country and at the football association, the three internationals who live in Afghanistan do not get their top sports visas in time and are not there. And the staff who have fled in recent months have other things on their minds. For example, Materialman Sharif is in Doha. โ€œWe were always joking with him, but now that hes not there, you can only notice what he did and how important he was to the team,โ€ says Shayesteh.

The internationals and fled staffers left behind in Afghanistan, like the millions of other Afghans worldwide, will tune their TV on Tuesday at 3pm Dutch time to the practice international against Indonesia. The rights were first sold exclusively by the Afghan football association to the highest bidder, a channel that few Afghans can receive. Dastgir managed to stop that. The rights were ultimately sold to a channel that pays less for it, but can be watched by everyone. โ€œThe people in Afghanistan are experiencing a very difficult time and I can do little to them from a distance. But I can make sure they can watch that game. Hopefully theyll see a victory and otherwise they could enjoy their national team for ninety minutes.โ€