BELEK, Turkey – Anoush Dastgir is possibly the hardest working man in football, but on Saturday his job had taken a toll.
Dastgir, the coach of Afghanistan’s men’s national team, was sitting in an empty restaurant at the hotel, where he and his team were preparing for a showdown against Indonesia. It was 11 pm and Dastgir was battling what sounded like a severe cold. Which was not surprising since he now had a dozen tasks to perform.
Coaching a national football team is tough enough everywhere, but coaching Afghanistan has long had unique challenges.
It is one of the poorest countries in the world and a place where civil war and Taliban rule once kept the national team from playing a match for almost two decades. In fact, the country is considered so insecure that FIFA, football’s global governing body, has long banned its teams from playing at home. Most of the time it hardly mattered: Afghanistan is ranked 152nd in the world. And it has never qualified for a major tournament.
Yet circumstances worsened over the summer as the Taliban swept back to Kabul, the Afghan government collapsed and its president, Ashraf Ghani – not to mention tens of thousands of his countrymen and women – fled the country.
Dastgir lost access to part of his team and half of his staff in the chaos. Two employees are now in refugee camps in Qatar. Two others are in Afghanistan, eager to travel. His list is almost exclusively populated by Afghan refugees, or refugee sons, who have found refuge in the Netherlands, Germany, USA, Sweden and beyond over the years, fleeing the various conflicts that have plagued Afghanistan since the 1980s. But a few still spend time in Afghanistan, and this year it even became a concern.
One of Dastgir’s main players, Noor Husin, who traveled to the UK when he was six, was in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in July as the Taliban approached. “I was afraid to be honest,” he said. “For every day there was news, they are getting closer, they are on the outskirts of the city. And I thought, certainly not. You just did not think it would happen. ” he said.
Husin managed to get to Kabul and crawl out of the country, but he – like many of his teammates – thought the national team was done. “Everyone thought, this is the end, the end of everything,” he said.
Dastgir, however, was determined to keep it alive, to make it continue to serve, he said, as a rare symbol of unity in a country often divided by ethnic or linguistic lines. So a few weeks ago, he picked up the phone and arranged a friendly match – the first since the Taliban took over – against Indonesia. That was the easy part. He then had to find a place for the game, arrange flights and visas for players, and download coronavirus tests for everyone. When the Afghan Football Federation’s bank account was frozen, Dastgir successfully asked FIFA for help in financing the trip.
Without a kitman, Dastgir also had to send 450 pounds of exercise equipment himself and then persuade his brother-in-law to help him wash it. He bought footballs, arranged referees and – without a communication team – promoted the game on his private social media accounts. He even negotiated a deployment contract to ensure that the maximum number of people left in Afghanistan could watch the match. And then, with all that done, he still had to find time to coach the team.
But as midnight approached in the hotel restaurant on Saturday, there was still an important question to solve: Which flag would the team flag?
A young leader
At 31, Dastgir is one of the youngest coaches in world football. Born in Kabul, he escaped the country’s civil war with his family shortly after Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989. He was just a few months old and grew up in Pakistan and then India before settling in the Netherlands.
In Europe, he learned Dutch and was scouted by a leading club, NEC Nijmegen. He was eventually called up to the Afghan national team, but showed up in a handful of matches before a knee injury ended his playing career.
“My coaches said, ‘You have to start training,’ because as a player, I was a kind of team leader,” he said. His first opportunity to lead Afghanistan came in 2016, when a foreign coach did not show up for a match in the middle of a contract dispute.
“The players said, ‘I think Anoush can handle it,'” Dastgir recalled. He lost that match, but the team played well. The next time the position was opened, in 2018, he got the job.
At the time, he was on the hunt for Afghan players. Many were discovered among the great Afghan diaspora, refugees and their children scattered around the world. When a match against Palestine in Kabul was held in 2018, the first international match played in Afghanistan in years, Dastgir called in many of his discoveries.
“I wanted to have these players in Afghanistan to feel the country, to see the people, because most of them are born outside the country,” he said. “So if you tell them to play for your country, they say, ‘What is it?'”
Already, the team’s place as a visible multicultural institution is showing up in training sessions.
Instructions were shouted in Dutch and Pashto. Encouragement was offered in German, Dari and English. Sometimes Dastgir switched languages between sentences. “My first captain is Tajik,” he said. “My second captain is Pashtun. My third captain is Hazara.” Two of his players, brothers Adam and David Najem, were born in New Jersey.
Yet as the battle approached, the questions of the flag and the anthem remained unresolved. This was not a decision to be taken lightly. Taliban’s white flag with Shahada – the Muslim creed – printed on it, has replaced the green, red and black tricolor over Afghanistan’s presidential palace. And since the Taliban have introduced a broad ban on music, the national anthem has actually been banned.
Dastgir knew it would be controversial to play it and fly the old flag; the country’s men’s cricket team was reprimanded by a Taliban leader after doing so at the Twenty20 World Cup. He knew his choices could cost him his job or worse.
“I’m not afraid of being fired,” Dastgir said. “I am the head coach of the 37 million Afghan national team. I am not the national team coach of the Taliban regime or the Ghanaian regime. We never did it for the government. We did it for the people.”
Cheers far from home
No one in Afghanistan’s camp was sure if any followers would actually come to see them play in Belek, a coastal town near Antalya.
Stadium officials worried about coronavirus restrictions were subdued when Dastgir agreed to pay for the safety of his own pocket. There was also the question of whether the Turkish police could prove to be a deterrent. At least 300,000 Afghan refugees and migrants have found refuge in Turkey in recent years, and many are undocumented. But as daylight disappeared and kickoff approached, hundreds of fans lined up outside the stadium gate.
“I want to show that I am Afghan,” said Mursal, an 18-year-old student wrapped in a large Afghan flag but careful enough to refuse to give his last name. She had fled to Turkey four years ago after her father was killed in Afghanistan, and had few opportunities to wave the Afghan flag since she arrived. “It’s our flag. You have no other flag. Just this flag and no one can change it.”
Six hundred supporters – the limit agreed with the stadium officials – soon poured in and filled the stadium’s one long grandstand.
A few minutes before kickoff, the teams lined up in midfield. In front of them, two of Afghanistan’s temps unfolded a large green, red and black flag, the one that Dastgir had carried with him to Belek. The anthem played, a moment radiated to millions of Afghans back home. No one was there to take the traditional prematch photo: The team’s official photographer fled to Portugal months ago.
The game was hectic, soundtracked by the constant noise of the Afghan fans. Dastgir, dressed entirely in black, calmly gave tactical instructions. Late in the second half, he called on Omid Popalzay, a Dutch-born midfielder who was last seen playing in Poland’s fourth row. In the 85th minute, a few moments after entering the match as a substitute, Popalzay scored. A few minutes later the final whistle sounded. Afghanistan had won and the fans broke out in joy.
A fan jumped 12 feet down the running track around the field in hopes of getting a selfie, but he was intercepted by police and seed-marched back in the neck. One player, Norlla Amiri, climbed onto the shoulders of a teammate so his infant son could be passed on to him.
Other fans threw their cell phones at the players and asked for selfies. Many wanted pictures with Faysal Shayesteh, a 30-year-old midfielder who has had a professional career worldwide since moving to the Netherlands as a boy.
Almost all Afghan fans knew Shayesteh because of his tattoos, including the one over his chest showing Kabul’s skyline under a fighter jet and an attack helicopter, each bombarding the city with red hearts. Above his left chest were two GPS coordinates: The first is for Hengelo, the town in eastern Holland where he grew up. The other is Kabul, where he was born.
“If I talk about it, I’m going to be emotional,” he said, holding back tears. “Because I know what the people of Afghanistan are going through. And I know that’s the only thing that makes them happy is winning a match for the national team. It’s all they have, so I’m very happy. ”
Dastgir watched it all unfold from behind and filmed some of it on his phone to post it on his Instagram account. No one had done more to make the moment happen than him.