The power of sports and ideas

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No sport has the capacity to unite people like football. From the favelas of Brazil to the stadiums of Europe, football bridges political, economic and cultural divisions – almost four billion unite under its banner across the globe. For the most ardent fans, football defines their lives, their identities and their reason for being.

In Afghanistan under the Taliban government, all sports were banned. The places that Afghans looked to for hope became symbols of repression and fear. Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium, where young Afghans once played football, was used for public executions.

Today, much has changed in Afghanistan. Roads, bridges and dams have sprouted across the country. Afghans have witnessed the first peaceful transition of power in their country’s history. Six years have been added to the average Afghan’s lifespan in just over a decade.

Afghan media has also experienced extraordinary growth. In 2001 the country had one television and one radio station and nearly all forms of entertainment were outlawed. Today some 100 TV channels and twice as many radio stations reach more than 70 percent of homes across the country. From talent shows that feature female singers to live televised presidential debates, these media platforms have changed the face of Afghanistan.

Moby Group opened its first channel, TOLO TV, in 2003. We now dominate the market, with three television and two radio channels and an audience share of over 60 percent.

Two years after the fall of the Taliban we brought the first female voice onto the airwaves, and two years after that we launched Afghan Star – a reality TV show that scouted the best singing talent in the country. Challenging social norms once again, we broadcast performances by females on national television.

These have been watershed moments, pivotal to the country and its march out of some of the darkest periods in its history. Moby Group’s foray into football is part of this cultural revolution.

AN UNLIKELY MARRIAGE

Football is the most popular sport in Afghanistan. But for Moby, the idea of introducing an Afghan Premier League (APL) was as much about reigniting passions and creating a platform for change as it was about business. This was another opportunity to show both the world and ourselves how we can be defined by something more than western media headlines.

Despite efforts by the Afghan Football Federation (AFF) to develop football in the country, it had suffered from a lack of funding and attention. Moby approached the AFF with the idea to not only create a league but to ensure that it received the promotion and sustained coverage it required to survive. The response was unanimously supportive.

Together we laid out our vision and principles for how the league would be developed – including adherence to FIFA rules. But we also defined a number of social ideals we expected the league and its participants to live up to. They included meritocracy and fair play, integrity and a drive for social betterment. With the framework set, the league was born in 2012.

IN AT THE DEEP END

It’s one thing to arrange a single football match, but quite another to introduce an entire league into a country marred by violence and in the process of being rebuilt. As entrepreneurs we can be naïve and stubborn. At the time, we knew enough to keep moving forward but not so much that the magnitude of the challenge ever derailed us. Those challenges included creating the eight national teams and recruiting players, coaches, and staff – not to mention drawing fans back to a stadium that was associated with so much suffering.

We used the nationwide search for players as the basis for a reality TV show. In Afghanistan though, nothing is simple. The production team travelled to some of the country’s most dangerous areas. There were concerns about how they would be received by different groups and tribal leaders. But as a testimony to the power of sport – and an indication of how this idea would transcend differences – in some areas local Taliban leaders sent messages to the travelling teams, granting them access and expressing their support.

Previously, Afghans had little in the way of a collective voice. In building the teams, the audience was called upon to vote for their favorite players via SMS text messages – a mobile platform with ubiquitous reach and anonymity. Women and men, young and old, everyone had their say in the formation of the league. By the end of the series the country was gripped by the APL phenomenon.

WITNESSING HISTORY

Any fear about whether Afghans would turn out to support the league was quickly replaced by concerns about how to control the numbers. Matches are confined to Kabul, where the stadium holds 5,000 people. At the opening game, 10,000 showed up.

The anticipation was electric. There was unbridled emotion, even on some of the most hardened faces. There were even tears as the Women’s National Team paraded across the pitch. The match signaled the start of a new chapter for the country and a symbol of something much more profound – national unity.

The launch of the APL saw the most extensive media coverage ever of a sports competition in Afghanistan. Outside the country it was reported on by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and the BBC.

MOMENTUM OF CHANGE

The APL is now entering its fourth year, with a peak viewership of around 13.5 million – at least half the population – and with community viewing the audience is likely much greater. It is fast becoming self-sustaining, attracting sponsorship from telecom companies, banks, and construction firms.

The league has created 3,000 jobs and inspired the live broadcast of the country’s first ever women’s football tournament. By promoting the game from the grassroots level right up to the national league, the APL has helped elevate standards – including the performance of the national team, into which it feeds players.

In 2013, the Afghan national team won the South Asian Football Championship, beating India and triggering a weeklong celebration across the country. Afghanistan jumped an unprecedented 46 places in the FIFA rankings.

Last year, APL launched a series of youth football clinics, reaching over 3,000 girls and boys. APL players and coaches not only taught football and fitness but also spent time mentoring players about life – the importance of staying in school, keeping off drugs, and treating people with respect regardless of their ethnic group.

In partnership with national anti-drug efforts, APL players have served as goodwill ambassadors, visiting schools and rehab centers across the country.

Further, aid and development organizations have leveraged the success of the league to promote democracy, peace, women’s empowerment and health.

The APL has succeeded where so much has failed, uniting the country around a single passion. In 2014, the APL launched the “One Voice, One Afghanistan” campaign. Fans chanted the slogan at matches and posted it across social media. For the championship match, musicians from across Afghanistan delivered a stirring performance, forming a giant map of the country on the pitch.

The league has not been without its critics, but whatever cynicism existed has ebbed with each passing season, drowned out by the country’s eagerness to crown their next national champions and praise their heroes. Season to season, the APL positively shifts social norms, challenges entrenched ideas and presents new ones – all the while entertaining the nation.