A World of Difference:  Soccer a Means for Social Change from Sea to Sea
Aditi Kinkhabwala
June 15, 2006

One of the girls scored. Her teammates didn’t cheer. Then, when one did, the other girls shot her a nasty look, and Awista Ayub realized this had nothing to do with tribal affiliations.

It had been 23 years since Awista’s parents packed up and fled Afghanistan, and while she was growing up in Connecticut, the Taliban had gone from banning girls from school to forbidding women from working. 

Three months after September 11, 2001, and five before Awista graduated from college, the Taliban was toppled. Afghan girls could start dreaming about playing sports. But it was just a dream.

Until Awista came along. She had been a hockey player but knew that soccer was “the easiest sport to break down cultural and social barriers,” so she founded the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange (AYSE). Teach some Afghan girls how to play, have them teach some more and you’d have “lasting social change,” Ayub figured.

Except that when she brought the first group of eight girls from Afghanistan to America two summers ago, the girls weren’t getting the team part of the game. They had been clawing for their survival in Afghanistan, many as their families’ primary breadwinners, and out on the soccer field that vitally individualistic mentality wasn’t going to just go away.

“Someone would score a goal and they’d all think, Why wasn’t it passed to me so I could score?” Ayub recalled.
The AYSE stayed at it for six weeks. They took the girls to a clinic in Connecticut and prepped them to play in Cleveland’s International Children’s Games. The girls visited a dentist and a doctor and they went to the zoo. They rode rollercoasters at Busch Gardens, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld chatted them up and they watched the Washington Freedom play. The Freedom don’t play anymore. These girls do.

“You can see the obvious impact on their self-confidence,” Ayub said. “But the best part for me is seeing how they can now collaborate and the way they’ve come together for a common goal.”

Around the world there are 240 million soccer players playing on 300,000 clubs and on 1.4 million teams. Fifteen of those teams are in, yep, Kabul.

By the time Ayub headed for Kabul and an AYSE clinic in April — which only happened because she talked herself out of turning around in Dubai — the Afghanistan Football Federation had those 15 teams up and running. The players are girls between the ages 12 and 18, the coaches are phys-ed teachers still learning the game, and the fans include the men manning the International Security Force.

On the clinic’s first day, Ayub and the four California-bred Afghan-Americans she’d enlisted to pilot the session’s coaching distributed 18 crates of donated cleats and balls to 250 girls. Just as she had with those first eight girls in 2004, Ayub saw the girls start being more assertive. She saw giggles and goals — and girls applauding those goals.

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. The girls train fully covered, in long pants and veils, and aren’t allowed to practice in public. Kabul’s main soccer stadium hasn’t been used since the Taliban last hosted a public execution, and Safuillah Sabat, the country’s top sports official, dismissed the suggestion that these soccer players put it back in use as ludicrous.

“Would these people [who encourage the girls] let their wives and daughters play in front of 2,000 or 3,000 cheering men? Of course not,” Sabat scoffed to the San Francisco Chronicle last month.

Many Afghan parents were in line with Sabat’s philosophy, telling their daughters that sports are unseemly and unfeminine while predicting irreparable ills for their bodies. Some of the younger generation weren’t any better, as many of Ayub’s campers marched onto their mini-fields past cat-calling boys.

But this game hooks you. And the power of the game is even more intoxicating — at the end of the week there were still 250 campers. When Ayub said that the Afghans had her feeling like she was home, it was probably because the scene unfolding before her could’ve just as easily played out in Waterbury, Conn.

“It wasn’t different,” Ayub said, thinking back to the American clinics she saw two summers ago. “You could’ve put those girls in any country in the world and it would’ve been the same.”

And that’s the beauty of this game.

Yes, over this next month we’ll think Argentinean Juan Roman Riquelme’s playmaking is ingenious and wonder if there’s any silkier man than Czech Pavel Nedved. We know the arc of David Beckham’s kicks is so pretty it spawned a movie title and that Baryshnikov would willingly call Ronaldinho his balletic equal. Magnificence and splendor and exquisiteness — we’ll see all that on German pitches this month. But the true charm of soccer is what we can see on any field, any day, anywhere in the world.
IOC president Jacques Rogge calls it “the most universal sport” because there are no language or racial barriers. Soccer transcends cultural, religious and social divides. Soccer demands dialogue and the forging of a collective identity, and there’s not a player alive, outside of maybe Diego Maradona, who thinks he can score alone.

Depending on where you play the other football, in Canada or Europe or in the Arena League, the rules change. Not in this football. The heroes are the same and there’s only one piece of equipment a child needs to mimic hers. One hundred ninety-eight of FIFA’s 207 member countries spent the last 2½ years trying to qualify for this Cup because no GNP said they couldn’t.

At the Cup-opening FIFA Congress, FIFA president Joseph S. Blatter said, “Football is about more than kicking a ball — it is a school of life.” That wasn’t some mere bureaucrat’s hyperbole.

Kofi Annan designated soccer one of the United Nations’ most important tools and said the U.N. officially “is turning to football” to help heal the emotional wounds of war and motivate the reconstruction of ravaged countries.

The Batey Libertad Coalition is a nonprofit alliance of Haitian, Dominican and U.S. businesses trying to create positive social change through soccer, and the Africa Leadership Initiative is aiming for the same in South Africa. Grassroot Soccer first called on former and current professional footballers to educate at-risk Zimbabwean youths about HIV three years ago and now has them doing the same in Zambia and Ethiopia.

UNICEF has Futbol Para la Paz in Colombia, Futbol Para la Vida in Honduras and more fútbol programs in Somalia, the Sudan and Sri Lanka. When Mel Young, CEO of the Homeless World Cup (it’s a real event — 48 countries are sending teams to Cape Town this September), joined Blatter, the IOC’s Rogge, Pelé and NBA commissioner David Stern at a World Economic Forum plenary that asked “Can a Ball Change the World?” he answered, “Absolutely.”

And he’s right. It’s already changing a tiny corner of the world in Afghanistan.