Roshan Afghan Premier League a hit with fans

Afghan footballers
Image caption There is a long tradition of playing football in Afghanistan, despite the interruptions of war

Afghans have been glued to their TV sets this week watching the start of their country's first-ever football league season.

It may be a long way from the standards of European football leagues, but the newly created Roshan Afghan Premier League has generated huge excitement and turned people across the country into football fans overnight.

It all started with a single reality TV programme on Afghanistan's main private channel, Tolo: the Maidan-e-Sabz (Green Field) programme offered aspiring footballers the chance to compete for a place in eight newly-formed football teams across Afghanistan.

The participants put their football skills to the test in a series of challenges, including one that involved running through mud and water.

By the end of the series, 18 players had been chosen for each new regional club.

"We want to improve professional football in Afghanistan," said Keramuddin Karim, head of Afghanistan's football federation and a key member of the Green Field TV jury.

"It is a new era for Afghanistan's favourite sport, football."

Image caption For the fans, football provides a welcome relief from violence

The new teams in the Roshan football league - named after the country's leading telecommunications company, which is jointly sponsoring the operation - have the support of the international governing body of football, Fifa, and the Asian Football Federation.

All the matches are played in a new 5,000-seater football stadium in the capital.

The first match kicked off on Tuesday, with Kandahar's Atalan-e-Maiwand soundly beating Shaheen Asmaee from Kabul.

"We had space for 5,000 people, but more than 10,000 turned up," said Mr Karim.

"They were shouting, cheering up and even crying during one of the first ever league matches in their country."

There is a long tradition of playing football in Afghanistan, despite the interruptions of war.

The Afghan Football Federation was set up in 1933 and it joined Fifa in 1948; the national team played its first-ever match against European opposition at the London Olympic Games in 1948, losing 6-0 to Luxembourg.

But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the ensuing civil war put an end to international football for more than two decades.

The Afghan national team eventually returned to the international arena in 2002, when they played South Korea in the Asian Games, losing 2-0.

Lions of Khurasan

They had better luck in the Asian Cup the following year, beating Kyrgyzstan, but this was followed by a run of losses until 2011, when they were runners-up in the South Asian Games in Delhi.

Image caption All the matches take place in Kabul's brand new 5,000-seater football stadium

The result was their best-ever and they were dubbed the Lions of Khurasan, a nickname which has stuck.

Evidence that the launch of the new Afghan football league has sparked a new wave of enthusiasm for the game is clearly seen in the decision by one expatriate to start a website updating the results of the league to the outside world.

For the fans, football provides a welcome relief from the violence and suicide attacks which are reported daily on the news.

"I am so lucky to be sitting here and watching my country's football league," said Jamshid Aziz, a university student in Kabul.

"It feels like I'm watching Barcelona playing Real Madrid. I know that sounds like an exaggeration but who would have believed we would see something like this in Afghanistan one day?"

Afghan women are getting in on the act too - the women's national team has recently had a run of good results.

Feeling of togetherness

Kabul student Samira Haidari, 19, says that football has replaced Bollywood soap operas as her television favourite.

Image caption Football has promoted a sense of Afghan national unity

"I am a big fan of football, I welcome this event in my country and I follow every bit of it on TV," she told the BBC. "I really hope to watch it live in the stadium soon."

When it comes to salaries though, Afghan football teams are certainly in a different league from Barcelona or Real Madrid.

None of the players have contracts - they are only paid basic expenses. Teams get their board and lodging paid and players from outside Kabul also get a tiny daily allowance.

"We pay them 500 Afghanis ($10;£6) for their expenses," says Mr Karim of the football federation.

"I know it's not very much, but if they play well and shine it could open a new chapter in their lives."

Although the players know all about the multi-million pound salaries and contracts of the world's leading footballers, they say that for now, money does not matter.

"I would never have dreamed that it could be possible to play in front of such a big crowd who all have smiles on their faces," says Mujtaba Faiz, who plays for Kabul.

"For the moment, that's all I want."

But there is good news for the teams that come first, second and third in the new league.

The victors will win a grand prize of $15,000 (£9,200) and some players will be offered the chance to join the national team, which is mostly made up of players from Kabul, many of whom are playing in the Roshan league. As yet, no Afghan team members play overseas.

The newly-formed league runs until the middle of October, but many Afghans hope that the feeling of togetherness that football seems to be generating across the country will last much longer.

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