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March 30, 2017

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Afghans to launch professional soccer league

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Amid a deadly war in an impoverished nation, the promise of a new professional soccer league is offering a glimmer of hope in Afghanistan.

Thousands of young Afghans have signed up to participate in a reality television program called "Maidan e Sabz," or "Green Field," to earn a chance to play on one of eight professional soccer teams being created in their homeland.

Abdul Sabor Walizada, a trainer for the project, said Monday the idea is to bring soccer into Afghan homes, stimulate business and strengthen national unity through sports.

"After years of civil conflict and war, people will focus on soccer and the businessmen from each zone will try to have the best players," said Walizada, a former member of the Afghanistan national team.

"It will create national unity because if the central zone, for example, has a really good player, the southern zone team will want to buy him," he explained. "They will not care about his ethnicity. They will not care about his tribe. They will care that he is one of the best players."

The league is being organized by the Afghan Football Federation and sponsored by Roshan Telecom Development Co., a major communications company in Afghanistan, and the MOBY Group, which owns and operates media industries in developing nations. The group owns TOLO TV, a leading Afghanistan television station that will broadcast the reality show and the league's inaugural season of 16 matches, beginning in September.

Eight competitions are being filmed across the nation for Maidan e Sabz, including in the big cities of Kabul, the Afghan capital; Kandahar in the south; Mazar-i-Sharif in the north; Heret in the west; and Jalalabad in the east. Of the thousands of applicants, groups of 30 players will be selected to vie for slots on one of the teams from eight zones.

A battery of physical, mental and soccer skills tests — one involves running through mud and water while wearing ankle weights and then heading a suspended soccer — will whittle each group to 21 contestants. Each studio audience then will select the best 18 finalists.

At the end of all eight shows, 168 players will remain — enough for eight 18-man squads.

Maidan e Sabz debuted last week featuring film clips of famous soccer players like Argentina's Lionel Messi, Brazil's Pele and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo.

"Tell me, do you know more about (President Barack) Obama or Messi and Ronaldo?" TOLO commentator Makhtar Lashkari said, asking his TV viewers to illustrate the popularity of the sport.

Afghans began playing soccer about 90 years ago, but there were few if any rules. The Afghan Football Federation was founded in 1922 and was admitted into the FIFA, the sport's world governing body, in 1948.

Soccer gained a strong following among Afghans in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but the sport nearly died out during the 10-year Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and the civil war that followed from 1992 to 1996.

After the hard-line Islamic Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, sport in Afghanistan was reborn. Cricket has already made inroads, with the Afghan team improving its ranking considerably in international limited-overs competition. Now, with the start of the new soccer league, teams with names like "Eagles of Hindu Kush," — called after a mountain range — will compete to be the best in Afghanistan.

To develop peace and stability in Afghanistan, the nation must not only focus on training soldiers, says Keramuddin Karim, AFF president.

"This will be very effective for the new generation," Karim said. "This program is going to uncover new football talent across the country."

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