How football is rebuilding Afghanistan

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    The ball nestles in the back of the net during an Afghan Premier League match (Image: Alissa Everett Photography)

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    The ball hits the back of the net, the keeper lies defeated and the striker sprints away triumphantly. A familiar football image — just not one seen often in Kabul, and certainly not the image that most people associate with life in Afghanistan in 2013.

    While travelling in Afghanistan to report on the progress being made in women’s education and health care, American photographer Alissa Everett met two Melbourne-raised Afghans in Saad and Zaid Mohseni.

    The brothers came to Australia as refugees and have since returned to their country of birth to grow an independent media company that is the force behind the Afghan Premier League (APL).

    At the invitation of the Mohsenis, Everett was the only woman granted field access for the opening game of the second season of the APL, which saw Kabul’s Shaheen Asmayee edge past Oqaban Hindukosh 2-1.

    This was Everett’s second trip to photograph in Afghanistan and she was anticipating indoor shots of the tiny rooms that pass as classrooms in the fledgling school system, and packed wide angle lenses to show the anxious faces in crowded hospital waiting rooms.

    Needless to say, she didn’t come with the standard-issue gear of sports photographers — multi-pocketed khaki vests, hooded long lens and a monopod.

    Rather, when she passed through the two-metre-high perimeter fence onto the field, she was under head scarf and cover-all dress in muted colours, and was carrying two Nikon bodies with her largest lens being her 2.8f 24-70mm.

    Action from the Afghan Premier League (Image: Alissa Everett Photography).

    Action from the Afghan Premier League (Image: Alissa Everett Photography).

    Two days before the start of the second season of the APL, Afghanistan had defeated Pakistan in the first game between the two traditional rivals on Afghan soil since 1977.

    In a packed stadium, the crowd was orderly and the game fast-paced. It was a victory for Afghanistan, even before the final score of 3-0 over their ‘inseparable brothers’ from the east.

    As Everett made her way around the field a few men took exception to her presence, the only woman and only non-Afghan working that night at the game.

    Expressing disapproval in their native Farsi tongue and throwing small objects, Everett didn’t know what they were saying.

    “I didn’t stop to talk to them, there was a game on,” she said.

    The pitch is made of modern artificial turf, thanks to the generous contribution of FIFA, while the stadium has 6000 brightly coloured seats which are segregated – not to separate rival supporter groups but, for cultural reasons, to divide the men and women.

    But even this is great progress. Through the 1990s the only time stadiums in Kabul were filled to capacity was for the blood sport of witnessing Taliban-ordered executions.

    Today all games of the Afghan Premier League take place in the new Afghanistan Football Federation Stadium and the gruesome memories the Ghazi Stadium down the road are slowly being replaced with new sporting memories.

    In a land visibly wounded from 30 years of war, gradual progress is undoubtedly being made.

    When Afghanistan defeated India last week — world number 139 beating world number 145 — thousands of Afghans marked another milestone for their country with peaceful celebrations.

    In the first season of the APL the only major issues that were reported involved new spectators to the game leaving at half time as they thought the game was over, and a reporter trying to conduct an interview with player during a match.

    Everett’s trip to Afghanistan was to capture progress in education and medical issues but, as the image illustrates, the normality of a goalscoring celebrations is excellent evidence of the progress being made across Afghan society.

    Ms Everett travelled to Afghanistan with the support of the Global Fund for Women, the Cordes Foundation, and Exposing Hope.

    More of Alissa Everett’s images can be found at her website, or via her Instagram or Tumblr.