x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

English Premier League coaches healing Afghan hearts and minds

Afghan football coaches are training in Dubai under the scrutiny of English Premier League trainers, who along with the British Council, have launched a new coaching project for Afghanistan, writes Ali Khaled.

Afghan coaches train in Dubai on Wednesday under the scrutiny of English Premier trainers, who along with the British Council, have launched a new coaching project in Afghanistan. Razan Alzayani / The National
Afghan coaches train in Dubai on Wednesday under the scrutiny of English Premier trainers, who along with the British Council, have launched a new coaching project in Afghanistan. Razan Alzayani / The National

It is the eve of the Premier League decider. The players are prepped and ready. Thousands of fans are making their way to the capital to show their support.

And then, disaster.

A bus carrying friends and relatives of one of the teams crashes. More than 50 perish in the accident. As players mourn their loved ones, the manager somehow has to rally those left behind to take part in the biggest match of their careers.

The next time you hear a football manager speak of the pressures of the job, spare a thought for Fahim Sharifyar, coach of Roshan Afghan Premier League (APL) club Simorgh Alborz.

"Some of the players who lost relatives went back for the funerals," Sharifyar says of the tragic circumstance before the final of the inaugural APL season.

"This was the day before the final, the tickets had been sold, the advertisements were up and the commissioner of the Premier League asked me if we can carry on, and I said we don't have a choice as the people are here already."

For Sharifyar, the challenges of coaching an APL team are not ones the likes of David Moyes or Jose Mourinho will face next season.

The English Premier League is, however, lending a helping hand.

Sharifyar is one of 20 Afghan football coaches taking part in Premier Skills, a training programme established by the English Premier League and the British Council, and which is taking place at GEMS World Academy in Dubai until Sunday.

"The programme was originally started by the British Council World Wide and the Premier League, but we discussed it in Afghanistan with Tolo TV a few months ago and thought there is fantastic opportunity for Afghanistan to benefit from it, in particular developing the skills of APL coaches," the British Council director in Afghanistan John Mitchell said in Dubai earlier in the week.

For coaches like Sharifyar the trials of that first APL season have already proved an eye-opener in terms of experience.

"The players were selected from five provinces to represent one region, which is the north," he says of the Simorgh Alborz squad. "Because it was the first ever trials for Afghan Premier League teams, there weren't that many good players."

Those chosen then had to move to Kabul for a 20-day intensive training programme set up by the Afghanistan Football Federation, who are also involved with Premier Skills. Getting to the capital was no easy task.

"Security wise, it was not an issue, it was more the logistics, financially it was hard for them to travel and to find accommodation," Simorgh Alborz's coach says. "So the Afghan Premier League said they'll sponsor us and pay for our accommodation, so the players can stay for the three week training period."

Once there, the squads of the eight teams had to share the training pitches, with sessions typically starting either at 6am or 9am and lasting for two hours.

Running from August to November, the Afghan Premier League season, though short, proved dramatic, and ultimately tragic.

"After we lost our first match, we changed about 80 per cent of the structure of the team, to cover all our weaknesses," Sharifyar said. "We won the second and third matches, and then the fourth was the semi-final. The change in the team got us to the final."

Not surprisingly Simorgh Alborz lost the ill-fated final, against Toofaan Harirod.

"One of the main reasons we lost was that the players, psychologically, could not focus after what had happened," says Sharifyar. "We lost the game 2-1, but it was a good game, the stadium was almost full with over 10,000 people there."

Sharifyar, and the rest, are now hoping the Premier Skills experience will prove a prelude to a more rewarding season. It is not, however, a project intended purely for league success.

The programme sees intensive night-time training sessions complimenting four-hour theory classes during the day and is overseen by Johnnie Garside, a coach at Everton, and former Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday footballer Mark Bright.

Over the last few days, the 20 coaches, two of whom are female players, have been put through a series of technical drills and fitness exercises, some involving a group of Afghani and Emirati children.

It remains a long-term project.

"This is only phase one so it's the first steps. We have a commitment to a phase two and phase three courses in the future, this is the basic one," Garside, the head of Premier Skills says.

"It's a progression, and only a select few, those who shown they have the competencies, will then be selected for phase two and then three."

Garside has been at Premier Skills since its inception, and has taken part in programmes in Vietnam, South Korea, India, and several other countries.

"This one in particular has been really interesting," he says of working with the Afghan coaches. " Some are very experienced guys who have been in the national team, with 10, 15, 20 years of coaching experience, and others are just starting on the coaching ladder."

Throughout, Garside and the organisers have insisted that the project is about fostering a football community in Afghanistan, one that unites people from different ethnic backgrounds.

"That is absolutely what we want to be doing. There are so many good news stories in Afghanistan that just don't get out, if you look around us now this is a fantastic opportunity," Mitchell said, as the coaches and youngsters trained earlier in the week.

"The Afghan coaches are here to learn, and there are a lot of Afghan children having a fantastic time. This will be replicated right across Afghanistan, and it is an opportunity to develop skills and actually strengthen cohesion within the communities."

It is a situation that the organisers hope will become commonplace in Afghanistan in the coming year or so.

"In fairness there hasn't yet been major interest, because most kids don't really know about it yet, once the coaches return I foresee there will be real interest right the way across the country," said Mitchell.

Garside echoes that sentiment, adding that the programme's primary function is a communal one.

"That's what Premier Skills is all about, really, in addition to the technical aspects of coaching, it's more about the positive changes you can make in local communities through the power of football," he says.

"This is something that we want to stress, that it's not just about the elite, or competition or winning, it's about giving something back to the community and helping to inspire young people."

Despite all APL matches being broadcast live by two private channels in Afghanistan interest in the APL, for the time being at least, lags behind live action beamed in from European leagues.

"I understand they do follow [English Premier League]," said Mitchell. "We had a poll amongst the coaches earlier on, and 80 per cent of them support Manchester United, and there are also Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea fans among them, you can't get away from it really."

Sharifyar, for one, does not hesitate to name the Premier League manager and club he admires the most.

"Chelsea is a team that plays powerfully," he says. "Ever since Mourinho joined them and they became champions, I've been a big fan of theirs."

During their time in Dubai, as much importance has been given to organisation, preparation, fitness and nutrition, as to the technical aspects of the game. Bigger challenges, such as tactical formations, lie even further ahead.

"It [tactics] is not one of the main focuses," Garside says. "What we are trying to instil in the topics is development and helping to use football as a positive tool for change but, we do eventually go into the more technical and complex aspects of the game."

So does he see potential in the 20 coaches to achieve those targets?

"Very much so, some of them have 20 years experience, I've probably not been playing football for that long," he laughs. "It's an honour to stand at the front of the classroom, I try and emphasise that I am as much a learner as they are, we're all on a journey together.

"We have an ideas board and we all contribute to it. I've learnt as much from these guys as they have from me. It's all moving to a positive direction."

The intricate dynamics of Total Football, 4-2-3-1 formations and tiki-taka may have to wait for another day, but no one here is complaining.

For now, playing football is enough.

An Afghan football league is born

The Afghan Premier League (APL) was established in 2012 and is the country’s first ever national competition. It consists of eight teams, each representing one region in Afghanistan.

The eight teams are split into two groups of four, with each playing three matches, all in Kabul. The top two progress to the semi-finals and the winners of those two matches to the APL final. The inaugural title, and the US$15,000 (Dh55,000) prize money, was won by Toofaan Harirod FC after defeating Simorgh Alborz FC 2-1 in the play-off final in Kabul.

The teams are:

Toofaan Harirod, from Western region

Simorgh Alborz, from North-west region

Shaheen Asmayee, from Greater Kabul region.

Mawjhai Amu, from North-eastern region

Oqaban Hindukosh, from Central region

De Maiwand Atalan, South-west region

De Spin Ghar Bazan, Southern Region

De Abasin Sape, South-eastern region


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