At a makeshift beach in landlocked Afghanistan, children as young as eight, wearing baggy Real Madrid and Barcelona shirts with ‘Ronaldo’ and ‘Messi’ printed on the back, joyfully kick and chase the ball.
Kabul’s Ghazi stadium was the scene of gruesome executions under Taliban rule but today it is where Afghan youths, the majority of whom have never seen the sea, dream of representing their country at beach football.
“I had no idea about beach football before I joined this programme. I have never been to a beach,” 14-year-old Mudasir Yousufzai said, head over heels for his newfound passion.
“We have a lot of problems. We play on dust and rocks, our goals have no net, but because I am in love with it I still like to play,” he adds, smiling.
Yousufzai is one of dozens of youngsters taking part in a rapidly growing scheme that was set up six months ago to help find the brightest beach football talent in war-torn Afghanistan.
The brains behind the project is Hazratgul Baran, who plays for Afghanistan’s surprisingly respectable national beach football team — ranked 10 in Asia and 52 in the world, despite the lack of facilities and sand.
“When I first started this programme people wondered what I was doing. They would say, ‘How can you prepare people to play beach football when they have no idea what a beach looks like?’,” the 28-year-old tells said.
But Baran has had no problems attracting youngsters to the programme. Football is hugely popular in Afghanistan with kids playing on dirt roads, in markets and in schools — wherever the security situation allows.
Interest in beach football in particular has boomed since the national team played their first international match, against Qatar, in 2013 — a game they won against the odds.
In the beginning they were inspired by landlocked countries like Switzerland that are doing great internationally, says Ruhullah Rastagar, the director of the Afghan Beach Football Committee.