My translator Qais and I sat up in the cement bleachers, trying to follow a football match despite the two-storey dust devils swirling across the pitch. Plastic bags soared high into the air on updrafts before slowly tumbling back down to the rough pitch. The only greenery in Herat’s Olympic Stadium was the weeds growing unchecked behind the goals. There gnats swarmed and trash blown in from the stands collected, never to decompose because it was mostly styrofoam. Bottles of Cristal, the ubiquitous bottled water of Afghanistan, piled up as the players took every opportunity to hydrate. It was over 40°C and the sun was directly overhead. Only those willing to pay 150 Afghanis (about £1.60) for a ticket and the press, of which Qais and I were the sole representatives, had seats in the shade. We had come from Kabul, Qais’s hometown and my then place of residence, to make a documentary about Afghan football.

The majority of the spectators occupied the remainder of the oval ring, where tickets cost 50Afs to those who didn’t sneak in. The few hundred men and boys were mostly concentrated in the shade of the grandstand or under the giant cypress trees which ring the arena. They munched on handfuls of dried chickpeas and drank tea. As the sun moved across the sky they relocated to follow the shade, their movement around the stadium reminiscent of a sundial. Unlike the wealthier and more learned fans in the VIP box who liked to express their opinions, the fans outside the grandstand were reluctant to talk to me on camera. The most common reason I was given was that they felt too tongue-tied or ill-informed to say anything worth hearing, a frustrating kind of self-censorship that I nonetheless have to respect.

I wondered if, in addition to not wanting to appear foolish on camera, the men who said no to our interview requests were also put off by the peculiarities of my translator. A young man with long hair and a Kabul accent can attract the wrong kind of attention on the street, particularly with corrupt cops or packs of adolescents. But as the lead guitarist of District Unknown, Afghanistan’s first and only heavy metal band, Qais shrugs off the catcalling and flies his freak flag with a confidence that disarms even the conservative religious types we meet along our travels. Indeed, it’s far more likely that the punters in the cheap seats were more put off by me, the sunburnt foreigner pestering them with questions while they were trying to enjoy their football.

Eventually we made our way over to a group of kids, sitting directly in the sun on the far side of the stadium, who were willing to answer our questions. They had snuck in over the 10-foot cement wall with the aid of a boost from below. During our interview they continued to haul up more of their friends. But instead of watching the match, they seemed far more interested in the ongoing egg fight in their midst. I’d heard of egg fighting before, but this was the first I’d seen of it. It’s hilarious and addictive: two opponents pick boiled eggs out of a batch. They then tap the eggs lightly, to make sure they’re hard boiled and that the shells are strong. Once satisfied, each competitor grips his egg and on the count of three knocks it against the other. Whoever ends up with a cracked shell loses, forfeiting his egg for the winner to eat or do with as he pleases. I was hopeless at it, but Qais got on a roll and I had to pull him out of there before we got accused of hustling.

Back in the grandstand with bellies full of eggs, I spotted Ali sitting nearby. He had given me an interview that morning at sunrise while waiting to get into a pick-up game. I walked up to him and greeted him in the traditional manner: “Salaam aleikum, chetor asti, khob asti, janna jorast, khairati, khana khair ast?” (“Peace be with you, how are you, are you well, how is your health, are you healthy, is your family healthy?”). The animal behaviouralist-turned-pop anthropologist Desmond Morris referred to such conventionalised pleasantries as “grooming talk“. The phenomenon of the lengthy hello has even inspired a joke in Afghanistan: a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? reaches the final round and, faced with a difficult question, decides to phone his friend, an expert on the subject. When his friend picks up on the other end, the two take so long to say hello that the contestant runs out of time and loses the game. I would say this is an exaggeration if I hadn’t seen examples myself of Afghans in extremely urgent situations still taking the time to do the greeting properly.

Ali is middle-aged, with a stubbly chin and pearly white teeth, and plays for the local club Istiqlal, who won the Herat Premier League in 2013. That morning he had told us that if you want to find a free pitch in Herat on a Friday, you had better get up before dawn or every square foot of usable earth in sprawling Taraqi Park (which surrounds the Olympic Stadium) would be occupied with squads of young boys and teenagers, equally divided between the traditional shalwar kameez and modern football jerseys (almost exclusively Messi or Ronaldo; alongside the odd Neymar, I also saw one Robert Lewandowski and two Ali Karimi shirts during my year in Afghanistan). Some play in proper trainers, but just as many wear sandals or nothing on their feet at all. No matter what Nike or Adidas say in their ads, a kid in plastic flip-flops can get around anyone in $250 boots if he’s got the goods.

“Footballer Ali”, as I jotted his name down in my notebook (next to the likes of “Shamsah in Barça jersey” or “Sami Khedira lookalike guy“), was excited to see us in the stadium and called to someone nearby to come over. A boy of about 14, lanky and grave, strode up and looked me in the eye. He proudly bore a few whiskers on his lip as a badge of manhood. I’d lived in Afghanistan long enough to sense when someone has a bone to pick with the occupation forces and has decided to take it out on me, as though I have a direct line to headquarters. I braced myself. The young man asked about my name, nationality, favourite football club, warming me up for the big one: “… and what is your religion?“

I suddenly became aware of the small circle gathered around us. I was the only foreigner in the stadium and thus, for the moment, more interesting than the match still going on below. I tried to respond diplomatically, saying, “Football is my religion!” “That is not a religion,” he replied. I insisted that it was, but he got offended, telling me that Islam is the only real religion and I should be a Muslim. I looked over at Ali, who doesn’t speak English but was still smiling as if this interview was going swimmingly. Qais pulled me aside and we walked back to our seats. “You’re crazy, man,” he said as he lit a Pine cigarette.

Finally turning our full attention to the pitch for the dying minutes, we saw the hosts wrap up their demolition of the visitors from Farah Province. I watched the Farah players stalk off the field with their heads down and wondered how long they drove and through what kind of dangerous country in order to compete there. Like the teams from Badghis and Ghor Provinces, almost all of them would return home disappointed. But a lucky few would stay in Herat along with the best of the Heratis. For this was no ordinary tournament: they had come to the Olympic Stadium to show their skills and compete for a spot with Toofan Harirod, the club representing the entire Western Zone in the Afghan Premier League.

Considering that the country has been at war with either invading armies or itself since 1979, including a decade under a decisively anti-football Taliban regime, Afghan football is surprisingly robust at the grassroots. But beyond the street level, it has for decades remained a balkanised array of amateur provincial leagues peppered with a few semi-professionals, tournaments and cups taking place at varying times throughout the year and in different formats, and no one league or tournament to crown a national champion. One could easily imagine a Corinthians or Queen’s Park feeling quite at home in the jumble of associations. Certainly the tools of the trade have remained more or less the same since their heyday, albeit instead of playing on mud patches in the rain they would have choking dust and scorching sun to contend with.

The next day we travelled a few hundred meters down the road from Olympic Stadium to see local club Ariana FC in training. “The only reason why Herat is backwards in sports is the lack of money. If we had enough money then sports could develop faster, especially football,” said Haji Toryalai Shirinsukhan, the club’s director and patron. “Our federation doesn’t have the capacity to sponsor their teams. They arrange some annual tournaments, but that’s it. These tournaments are limited to [Herat] Premier League teams and they give out cheap cups and prizes to the players. Since the government of Afghanistan isn’t focusing on sports the conditions for growth don’t exist.” Haji Toryalai is a former bodybuilder with a broad frame and a broader smile, even if the flock of boys buzzing around him get impatient for their chance to play. “I never played football — I played many other sports — but I have a skill for management,” he added. That’s important for a club with over 800 boys and girls on its various teams. “The equipment you see here today has come from the private budget of one person,” he said, indicating himself, “since I love my country and my people and there is no one else to take care of us.”

After our interviews we were invited to play with the senior team, of which my ripped jeans and scarred knee are a constant reminder. Towards evening I hobbled down the road to a smaller training ground in one of the corners of the park, where Ansari FC have their training sessions. Unlike his counterpart at Ariana, the Ansari director Ghulam Ali Farahi is lean and soft-spoken, but his gratitude for our interest in his team and his passion for football are palpable. He told practically the same story as Haji Toryalai: no sponsors, players with day jobs and a central government with no budget for sporting development. But with or without aid from Kabul, Farahi will make do with what little he has. “I have been a sportsman and have played football for a long time,” he said. “I’m proud to have played for this and other clubs. I even played as a refugee [in Iran]. Football is my only love and I do what I can to support the youth and pull them out of the problems we all face in Herat. It would be great if we could provide them training and classes to encourage them to play football and other sports. If they don’t get that, then we’ll lose everything we’ve built here.”

The Ansari FC coach Saeed Amini, his eyes still on his team as we began to film, told us about the economics of local football: “Some teams here have sponsors who come and help out for a short period of time, one or two years, then they walk away. If a player works hard, practises a lot, then a sponsor might come and sign him for very little money. Then he has to stay with them for up to five years and his club has to start over again.” Amini didn’t name names but I picked up from chatter around the Olympic Stadium that Big Bear and Kabul Bank, two local clubs named after large corporate sponsors, are widely disliked for plucking young talent from their rivals. This is the nature of the football transfer market everywhere, one might say, but financial fair play is not even a remote fantasy here where clubs that can barely afford balls and nets compete with teams funded by banks and energy drink manufacturers. But money is no guarantee of success, as Ansari proved by winning the Herat Premier League in 2012.

If Afghan football in the decade after the US-led Nato invasion resembled that of Victorian England in its chaotic structure and loose regulation of wages, it was not for a lack of desire to professionalise. Since Nato and the Northern Alliance removed the Taliban from government the obstacle for a serious domestic football league was finding financial backing. The time was ripe for a savvy investor to make a move: enter London-born Afghan Saad Mohseni, former diplomat and financier, who became the darling of Western media after returning to his parent’s homeland with his siblings to set up a counterbalance to the conservative religious voices dominating the media landscape. Starting with the cornerstones of radio (Arman FM) and, later, television (Tolo TV), the Mohsenis built up the Moby Group into the young democracy’s leading multimedia empire. The Moby Group has drawn criticism for controversial programming such as Indian soap operas and game shows featuring women without veils. Saad Mohseni himself, a well-known and vocal critic of corruption in the Karzai regime, has enemies in both the government and the Taliban. And yet you can hardly walk into a corner shop in any major city here without feeling his reach. So in 2012, when Saad joined with the AFF President Karim Keramuddin in launching the Afghan Premier League (APL), there was plenty to be excited about. Not only would it be the first fully professional league, it also promised to be the first competition to involve teams from all parts of the country and the first to be broadcast live and in full on television.

Shafic Gawhari, Moby Group’s Afghanistan CEO and APL Commissioner, described the concept of the league in an interview this year: “The goal should not only be the development of football, but at the same time we should also use the league as a platform to convey messages of national unity, peace, education and other social aspects. When I came in, I concentrated a lot on these social aspects of the league. We were of the opinion that the only way to make this league successful was to go for a public-private partnership, meaning that the public sector, the government, and civil society should join hands and work together to make it a success. From the private sector we managed to get support from the biggest telecom company in Afghanistan, Roshan, as a title sponsor, and from one of the best reputed banks, AIB, and the AFF itself as an independent NGO. And we also managed to convince the donor community to support the league. So at the end of the day Moby Group, as the leading media company in Afghanistan, signed a 10-year contract with the AFF, and the AFF… gave the broadcast rights for the league and at the same time the management, the marketing of the league, to the Moby Group. And that was how the thing started.”

Despite its name, the APL is really a tournament, consisting of a round-robin group stage, followed by a two-legged semi-final and a final, with all matches taking place on the turf pitch donated by Fifa in Kabul’s AFF Stadium. “We know that we don’t have a standard league in Afghanistan, but we still call it a league,” said Gawhari. “We think of it as a new model, which at the very beginning was met with reservations from the AFC and from Fifa… but now after one year we are happy to see that the world [football] organisations are looking at our development very carefully and seeing this as a model which maybe could be used in other developing countries as well, because we say that we don’t want to weaken the clubs… In a lot of countries where they introduce a new league, the clubs become very weak. That’s why we said we are in a position to stage a tournament for two or three months and the players should come and play and then they should go back to their clubs and have their own tournaments — their regional, provincial tournaments and games, and still be members of their own clubs. But come to us for 2 or 3 months and be paid for this duration.”

Local league fixtures in Afghanistan take place on Fridays, the only day most Afghans have off from work, which allows football fans to go down to the local ground and watch their hometown clubs without missing out on televised European fixtures. “The goal is not to compete with viewership of the European leagues,” Gawhari went on. “The goal was and is to provide the best quality possible considering the situation in Afghanistan.” But not only the domestic markets were considered. “We know we have a lot of Afghans living overseas, more than 500,000 or 300,000, and a lot of them are watching these games and they love it. Our goal was to bring football to the homes of Afghans in high quality and give them the possibility for joy, happiness, and hope.”

Far from worrying about added competition, everyone in Herat whom I interviewed expressed optimism about the new league and its ramifications for development. “We have very few facilities here in Herat. I think you’ve realised by now that the players here pay for their own kit,” said Ghulam Ali Farahi of Ansari FC. “But the APL is supported by Roshan and the equipment they provide can be a good source for the development of sports in Afghanistan. The APL is a good approach to a great future; it would be great if they took the same initiative on the provincial level.”

For Shah Rasoul, president of the Herat Football Association (an unpaid position), the introduction of yet another competition to the hectic fixture calendar made his job even more of a headache. Players from Herat leagues would be absent for months during the APL campaign. But nonetheless he saw the potential upside for the talented pool of players in his hometown: “We had eight players from Herat on the national team last year. This is a great glory for the Herat FA. We hope to have even more players on the national team this year thanks to the APL. The only reason Herat is famous for football is because of the achievements of our team.”

When he says, “our team” Shah Rasoul means Toofan Harirod, whose first tournament in Kabul was close to perfect. Beginning with a 4-1 victory over Simorgh Alborz from the north-west, the Heratis went on to beat Mawjhai Amu from the north-east 4-0 and rounded out the group stage with another 4-0 win over the southerners De Spinghar Bazan, whom they went on to drub again 10-0 in the one-legged semi-final. In the final they faced Simorgh Alborz again, leading 2-0 for most of the game until giving away only their second goal of the tournament in the dying minutes. The forward Hamidullah “Hamid” Karimi won the Golden Boot with nine goals in five matches and the left-winger Maroof Mohammadi was Player of the Tournament, impressing crowds with his pace, dribbling and crosses into the box.

Toofan fans were ecstatic. The city of Herat turned out in huge numbers to cheer on the returning champions, starting with a parade from the airport and ending up in a day of speeches and gifts for the whole team at the Olympic Stadium. The APL leadership was happy, too: according to an interview with Dr Shaji Prabhakaran, Fifa’s development officer for Central and South Asia, the APL led all South Asian football leagues in revenue in its first year. But in order to sustain the APL, the gulf in class between the champions and everyone else needed to be closed: a one-team league would not hold fans’ attention for very long. In a move showing foresight and commitment to offering competitive football, the APL adjusted quickly in their first offseason, starting with an overhaul of the selection process.

Forming a new league of regional teams makes sense for several reasons: the coaches and players probably knew or knew of each other already, and although the players may come from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds they would at least have a common hometown or region to forge team identity around. It also raised the chances of attracting viewers across the country, not just in Kabul where the matches are held. But with the market already saturated with football from abroad, the APL’s marketing team wanted a TV show to draw in viewers from all demographics. The result was a reality show on Tolo TV called Maidan-e-Sabz, or Green Field, which presented a behind-the-scenes look at team selection in each club. It was a hit with viewers but controversial among serious players. “The first year was mostly — 70-80% — a reality show,” said Gawhari. “We started with a reality show, but we learned lessons. Good players, national team players, didn’t show a lot of interest in joining the league through a reality show. They said, ‘We don’t want to compete with kids and street footballers who are very weak.’ So that’s why in the first season the quality of the games was not very high, because some of the best players didn’t participate.“ Fan voting, the primary means of selection in the first season, was retained as part of the program but outweighed by the advice of AFF officials and coaches, and serious qualification tournaments were organised for each zone.

In Herat, Toofan Harirod knew that the changes handed down by the league office would result in a tougher campaign against more evenly matched opponents. Everyone we asked agreed on this point, from coach Sayed Moein Hamadi (“The responsibility of coaching Toofan Harirod is a very big one. All the teams are stronger this year, and we will have very intense and difficult matches.”) to the top scorer Hamidullah Karimi (“The opponents are way better than the ones last year, because more players have been attracted to the Premier League this year.”) The left winger Maroof Mohammadi, whose ostentatious hairstyles and crossover dribbles exude no lack of confidence, saw the upside of the bump in competitiveness: “It’s getting better every year. New players are being introduced to the APL and the level of competition has really increased.”

Everyone I asked, from the coaches and players to fans in and around the stadium, said the APL would be harder to win this year, but they still had no doubt that Toofan Harirod would retain the title. By the end of the Herat edition of Maidan-e-Sabz, the team make-up was almost exactly the same as previous year’s championship squad. A senior forward from Ghor made the team as a gesture of goodwill, but the core of the starting eleven were Heratis. Toofan had found a winning formula and would stick with it. I wished the team good luck during their Ramadan training camp, a month of fasting during the day and training by night which I do not envy them. As much as I enjoyed Herat for its old city, clean streets and fresh mangoes, I was happy to return to Kabul, if only because the cut on my knee from Ariana FC’s training ground seemed to have changed colour and needed some treatment.

Ramadan came and it was impossible to do business for thirty days. As if fasting from sunrise to sunset in June, when the days are longest, were not difficult enough, a heat wave rolled in and baked the whole country into clay. How Toofan Harirod managed to train in those conditions I don’t know. Neither Qais nor I could get through to any of them for the entire month, so it was a great relief in August when I finally laid eyes upon them. They were staying in the APL Players’ House, the dormitory provided by the league to accommodate the players and staff of all eight teams, even Shaheen Asmayee from Kabul, who were officially staying there but were never around when I went to visit. Toofan’s players never seemed to settle into the house, which, although quite large, had few comforts and nothing in the way of recreation. Players bunked five or six to a room and spent their free time on Facebook or playing PlayStation. In order to maximise TV ratings, the APL only aired two matches a week, which means a lot of downtime between fixtures. In Toofan Harirod’s case they had almost a month to kill between their first two matches.

At this point in the story I needed to remind myself why Afghan football fascinates me and why I was filming this story in the first place, because it certainly wasn’t for the money. Although I think they’re doing their best to grow the league sustainably, I get impatient with the Moby Group for not offering a full season with more games. And although part of me thinks the players are fortunate to be playing for money at all, the teams are still dependent on private charity to make up the difference between the $10 per day they make from the APL and their lost wages, school tuition and the cost of supporting their families in Herat. The largesse of VIPs who lavish money on the winning team as long as the cameras are rolling is also maddening, as it not only reduces the players to mere entertainers who live and die at the whim of rich patrons but also does nothing for Afghan football besides inject some quick cash into players’ pockets.

While some local clubs are supported by corporate sponsors, the rest are funded out of the pockets of local businessmen such as the Herati club Ansari FC’s Gholam Ali Farahi or Aryana FC’s Hajji Toryalai Shirinsukhan, both of whom see no financial return on their investments but support their local institutions as a community service. These patrons dream of the kind of corporate sponsorship enjoyed by the APL, citing the lack of adequate playing surfaces and equipment as the greatest impediments by far to the development of football in their country. Security concerns or thoughts of sectarian rivalries never come up in the conversation.

But despite the almost feudal relationship of players to sponsors, or maybe because of it, I am excited to bear witness to the growing pains of this young league. I wonder whether the players and coaches think they are being exploited or if they think they are just lucky to get paid at all to do something they love. Whatever they really think, they all told me that they were honoured to represent their families and hometowns and that they just want to make their fans happy. Any thoughts of players’ unions or collectivisation are kept silent.

After winning their opening match 5-0 against league whipping-boys De Spinghar Bazan, Toofan prepared for a long break as some of its stars, including Hamid Karimi and Maroof Mohammadi, flew with the rest of the Afghan national team, the Lions of Khurasan, to the SAFF Championship in Kathmandu. Over the course of two weeks Afghanistan won four times and drew once to claim their first ever South Asian championship. The 2-0 victory over India in the final was particularly savoury: two years before in the previous final, India had beaten Afghanistan after an incorrect penalty call. Now justice had finally been served. I watched the final at the APL Players’ House and left as soon as I heard gunshots, walking the few blocks to my home amid jubilation in the streets. The night sky was filled with tracers from police checkpoints. The fact that it was September 11 led hasty news outlets in Kabul, ignorant of the international football fixture list, to conclude that the Taliban were attacking. But aside from a few injuries from falling ordinance, the night passed peacefully. The next day Afghan president Hamid Karzai went on television to praise the team for bringing recognition to their country for something other than war and corruption. And then he promised each player a new house (I checked up on this with some Toofan players later on: supposedly he made good on the promise, giving each starting player a flat by the airport on the outskirts of Kabul).

Seeing Afghan footballers dominate South Asia instilled me with newfound respect. Toofan Harirod certainly seemed motivated by the return of the newly crowned champions from Nepal just a few days before their match against Mawjhai Amu. I felt a bit sorry for the north-easterners, a few of whom I had watched the SAFF finals with, chatting and sharing tea as we watched their colleagues on television. Now I was running alongside them on the touchline taking photographs as they struggled to keep up. Toofan were in much better shape and easily converted Mawjhai Amu’s every attack into a threatening counter-attack, cruising to a 3-0 victory to take the top spot in their group with a game to go.

When I next saw Hamadi, he was preparing for the semi-finals and he looked concerned. His team were to face Shaheen Asmayee, who had a similar group stage to Toofan and whose star player was a fierce attacker named Hashmatullah Barakzai. Barakzai reminded me of Hulk with his powerful frame and wicked shot. And what’s more, Shaheen Asmayee were from Kabul, which meant not only could they expect the full support of the crowd at the AFF Stadium, but they were also the only team to spend the tournament in the comforts of home. They were the team everyone expected Toofan to face in the final and Hamadi would have liked more time to prepare. The last match of the group stage had ended on a sour note and he was out of sorts. Up 2-0 at halftime, Hamadi took the opportunity to bring on some players who had yet to see any match time. His inclusion of the keeper Farzan Ibrahimi over the flawless regular Yama Yahyazada had been meant to boost morale, but it backfired as Ibrahimi rashly charged off his line — twice — to let Simorgh Alborz chip in two easy goals over his head. The match ended 3-3, still enough to see Toofan Harirod through top of their group, but it had sown doubt within the team. The result also showed weak points in Toofan’s armour. Hamadi was now being held accountable for his choice and the lack of fan confidence was what had him so worried.

With a median age of 18 and widespread access to telecommunications, it is no wonder that Afghans are very present on social media. For Hamadi, this means spending a lot of time doing his own PR for Toofan Harirod. “I always try to talk to our fans through social networks and I promise them that we will win the championship,” Hamadi told me that afternoon at the APL Players’ House. “But football is hard to predict — you never know what will happen. The fans trust us, though, and they still say we’ll be the champions. I’m worried about what I’ll say to them if we don’t win. The problem is that everyone puts their expectations on the coach.” Upstairs in the dormitory room shared by three of Toofan’s young stars, the mood was much more confident. Maroof Mohammadi guaranteed victory: “We will win tomorrow’s game and I am 100% sure of it.” Already voted the APL’s best player in 2012, Maroof had two goals and two assists from the first three matches in the 2013 edition, so he had reason to be optimistic. And, at least for the first leg, he was proven right.

3 October 2013, AFF Stadium. The first leg of the APL semi-final. The Asmayee mountains, from which the Kabul team takes its name, loom over the tiny stadium. Fans holding banners for both teams packed the stands. Old men beat drums while little kids ran around picking up stickers with the two teams’ logos off the ground. Since May this had been the one team I’d heard Toofan players mention that could give them trouble down the line. For the first time I saw Hasmat Barakzai, or “Afghan Hulk”, in person. He has thighs like 10 year-olds’ torsos and a surprising burst of speed. He had scored about as many goals as Toofan’s Hamid Karimi, with whom he would end up sharing the Golden Boot at the end of the tournament. But his time to shine was yet to come.

Despite getting several good looks at goal, Barakzai and his team were goalless after ninety minutes. Hamadi’s concerns seemed baseless as his team struck first, taking a lead in the seventeenth minute from a long shot by Karimi’s strike partner Gulamreza Yaqobi. Asmayee goalkeeper Hamid Yousafzai had no chance as the shot swerves past him and bounces in off the far post. In the second half Asmayee forced the Toofan keeper Yama Yahyazada into some great saves, but their deficit doubled at the death as Hamid Karimi earned and converted a clear penalty in the ninety-first minute. Toofan celebrated their 2-0 lead as though they’d just won the league. Given the team’s record, a three-goal comeback by their opponents in the next game seemed unlikely, but Barakzai had been very unlucky not to score and Toofan needed a new defensive plan to deal with him.

Three days later Coach Hamadi stuck with his winning formula, sending out the same 4-4-2 that had taken him that far. Only this time, the close calls started falling in Shaheen Asmayee’s favour. Barakzai headed home a cross from Sami Mohammadi after just 10 minutes. Toofan’s array of attacking weapons were forced to defend as Asmayee came at them in waves, with Barakzai motoring around the top of the penalty box to take a shot on goal or spray the ball out to his wingers as the situation dictated. In the closing minutes of the first half, the wheels began to come off for Toofan Harirod as the goalkeeper Yahyazada, the most senior player by far and a rock of consistency, let a weak shot from Barakzai roll between his legs. The half-time whistle sounded a brief reprieve for Toofan, but the break brought no changes in their setup. Towards the end of a tense second half which Toofan spent mostly on their heels, the man of the match Barakzai set up Mustafa Afshar with a beautiful pass that Afshar redirected past Yahyazada with his first touch. Asmayee held on without much difficulty for the final whistle. The Kabul crowd went wild as Toofan disappeared into the locker room. 

Asmayee went on to win the final 3-1 against Simorgh Alborz and Toofan Harirod saved some face with a 4-0 win over Oqaban Hindokosh in the third-place play-off. No one on the team returned my calls for weeks. Perhaps it was out of embarrassment or frustration, or maybe they thought I was out to humiliate them. Coach Hamadi had told me repeatedly how high expectations were, and I don’t think they’d been prepared to go home empty-handed. I’m not even sure if anyone would see me when I visited Herat a month after the season. But, as though nothing had happened, once again we were warmly received by Coach Hamadi and Hamid Karimi. Whatever they had been through since losing, it seemed the intervening time had mended the worst of the injuries to their pride.

On our first night back in Herat, we dined on the carpeted floor of Coach Hamadi’s home, a spacious and renovated multi-story condominium on the road into town from the airport. Typical of middle-class Afghan homes, it had plenty of space for guests but little furniture. The only decorations were countless trophies and photo albums, which Hamadi showed us after dinner. His whole life is recorded there, including documentation of every team he has played for or coached, from his first club in Iran to his team of bearded men in long trousers during Taliban rule. The only thing missing is any evidence of his association with Toofan Harirod. When I asked, Hamadi answered diplomatically that he had let players keep those awards and that he had a picture of Toofan Harirod in his office. But it was clear that the memories he cherishes most are from the time when football was a community of people seeking to belong — whether as refugees or as persecuted athletes under a totalitarian regime.

Whatever the reason, being coach of Toofan Harirod had not been an easy task for the full-time maths teacher and primary school principal, who worries about his players getting a fair amount of playing time and can’t stand being away from his children for two months. Whereas before, as a grassroots football pioneer, Hamadi was only beholden to the clubs he played for, his new position has thrust him into the public eye. Upon returning from Kabul, Hamadi had been a guest on a local weekly football program on television, which for the previous two episodes had invited rival coaches as guests. These men waged a smear campaign, accusing Hamadi of incompetence and even suggesting that he had taken a bribe to lose to Shaheen Asmayee. But viewers of the show weren’t having it. “When they announced the poll’s result at the end of the program, 67% people said, ‘Hamadi should be the trainer of Toofan Harirod next year’,” the coach told us as we sat back digesting our vast meal of delicious rice and meat. “This proved my honesty and commitment to the team. The people showed that they are satisfied with my coaching. However, as I said on the show, if I had been here to defend myself from the claims [those coaches] made about me, then my approval rating might have been even higher than 67%.”

The next day, Hamadi drove Qais and me to the other side of town. We passed by Taraqi Park and crossed the city limits until we were out in the arid land from which farmers have been scratching out an existence for millennia. Eventually we turned off the highway and pulled up to a cluster of small houses arranged in a circle, their fields radiating out from the centre. In the middle of the houses was a small, flat area, dry as a bone and lined by irrigation ditches, but unmistakably a football pitch. Hamid Karimi walked out to meet us. He was all smiles as he and his cousins welcomed us with long strings of greetings. It was the first time I had seen him without a furrowed brow and an air of unease since before the tournament started. But there, between the fig trees and goat pastures stretching out to the horizon, he seemed relaxed, good-humoured and with plenty of local kids and relatives hanging on his every word. He showed us his trophy cabinet, including his second RAPL Golden Boot in a row (generously given to him by the joint top-scorer Hashmat Barakzai, whose Player of the Season award was enough for him). The rest of the house was off limits, being the domain of the women and children, so after we saw the trophies and recorded our final interview, we walked out onto the pitch behind the house and organised a kickabout for the camera. Hamid didn’t worry about his immaculate white shalwar kameez, running out into the midst of the swarm of village children to play keep-away, after which he took penalty kicks. This wasn’t for the camera anymore; he was just having fun. I wondered if the kids he was playing with realised how lucky they were to grow up playing football with one of the best forwards in South Asia. I also wonder if a passer-by — an NGO worker or ISAF soldier who’d taken a wrong turn off the highway — would have believed me if I’d told them. Looking around at this high desert plain, hundreds of miles away from the nearest city, I wonder if I would have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

Leaving Herat, I wondered if I would ever see Coach Hamadi or Hamid Karimi again. I still chatted with both of them on Facebook from time to time, but we were mutually tongue-tied beyond the topic of football. I promised them that I would return soon to make a follow-up documentary, and they asked me if I could bring them goods from the West: new iPhones and jeans are the most popular requests. That month the results of the Herat qualifying tournament came in and Hamadi was no longer listed as the coach. I have yet to hear back whether it was his decision or the choice of the RAPL. But with or without Hamadi, training for the new season was underway, and I will eagerly follow the tournament via full-match videos on the league’s YouTube channel. The national team suffered a blow during the AFC Challenge Cup in the Maldives, which started out well enough for the Lions of Khorasan to advance to the knockout round before a traffic accident left several starting players injured. Hamid Karimi had to watch from the bench and Hashmat Barakzai, subbed in at the sixty-fourth minute for Afghanistan’s top scorer Balal Arezou, who plays for Asker FC in Norway’s Second Divison, was unable to affect the outcome as Palestine’s Ashraf Alfawaghra scored a brace either side of half-time to send the Afghans home.

While disappointing, losing at the AFC Challenge Cup will hopefully show the Afghan government that, in order to become dominant in the region, the national team requires more than an occasional public show of grandeur, such as the houses and envelopes of cash that Hamid Karzai gave to his SAFF champions in 2013. Afghan fans, both in the country and the large diaspora scattered around Europe, North America and Australia, are starting to believe in their footballers and so are local investors. Saad Mohseni and the Moby Group have started off brilliantly, creating a manageable tournament that got the whole country involved. But as League Commissioner Shafic Gawhari reminds me in our interview, the fate of the league is ultimately subject to the larger question of the fate of the country. “We have not only a 10-year contract but also an option to extend another 10 years. But the main issue at the moment is that we have to work very hard to sustain the league at this level attract more sponsors. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the market and economic situation is very bad in Afghanistan due to the political situation, we are a bit concerned. We were safe this year, but we don’t know about next year. But if the election goes smoothly, a new government will be established and market confidence will grow among the private sector and new investors will come. The league will also profit. And that will give us also the possibility to invest more in development.” If one of the most corrupt countries in the world can produce a football league which is refereed fairly and with no allegations of match-fixing, then I sincerely hope it is given every chance to flourish. With the serious caveat that women’s professional football is not even being discussed in Afghanistan, we can at least hope that by watching their countrymen compete and succeed on a fair playing field, without restrictions based on ethnicity or sect, both boys and girls in this young nation can find alternatives to the role models presented by their bickering and corrupt rulers and clerics.