Afghanistan and Iraq are two countries reduced to rubble. Life is lived in ruins. Civil amenities and basic supplies are hard to get. This is besides the violence and unrest prevalent in those parts. Yet three  stories of hope.

The Afghanistan Cricket Team

The Afghanistan cricket team is currently participating in the ICC World Cup Qualifiers in South Africa. Four teams will qualify for the 2011 World Cup scheduled in the sub-continent (however, that is up for debate given the current security scenario). Wherefrom have they come? Afghanistan is not known for cricket. Of course the British, Indian and Pakistani influence may be there but for local Afghanis to give up their football and buzkhasi is quite a thing to be amazed at.

What is even more amazing is their abilities in the game. Till last year, they were in the ICC Division 5. Today they have crossed three Divisions to play in the Qualifiers in effect Division 2, one level lower than the regular nations.

Hameed Hasan, fast bowler for the Afghans writes in his blog for Cricinfo:

It is our dream to play in the World Cup and we are hoping to do the best we can in this tournament.

The tournament is in South Africa in parallel to the RSA v AUS contest and Hameed writes about sharing rooms in the same hotel as the Australians:

We had spent the weekend in Johannesburg, where we were staying in the same hotel complex as the Australian and South African teams, which was amazing. I managed to see quite a few famous players including Ricky Ponting, Mitchell Johnson and Brad Haddin.

As of today, they have two wins against Denmark and Bermuda. There are 12 teams in two groups of six. The top four from each group head into the Super Eights. The top four qualify for the World Cup. The favourites, on virtue of their relative pedigree, are Kenya, Netherlands, Ireland and Scotland. However, as Will Luke on Cricinfo, reporting on the Afghanistan v Bermuda match earlier today, says

Afghanistan’s unquenchable confidence drove them unerringly to a convincing 60-run win over Bermuda, who were condemned to their second loss in as many days. Afghanistan batted aggressively, fielded with agility and bowled with impressive discipline throughout.

[…]

There was little question which team was the hungrier, and Afghanistan’s second win on the trot ought to serve as an acute reminder of their fearlessness and ability.

Afghanistan wins a medal in the Olympics

Another major sporting jewel was last year at the Beijing Olympics when Afghanistan won its first ever medal with Rohullah Nikpai in Taekwondo.  This archived article in Yahoo writes about the struggle

When Gayezabi met Nikpai, they were both living at a refugee camp in Iran during the years of war that embroiled Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. The two competed together on a refugee taekwondo team.
Nikpai came to Kabul four years ago, Gayezabi said. In the mornings he lifted weights and in the evenings he practiced martial arts. In between he earned money cutting hair as a barber.
With success came better training conditions. After being selected for the national team six months ago, he was able to use a special gymnasium.
But in a country where sports take a distant place behind the realities of war, few resources are dedicated to training athletes.
“My training situation is a lot like the situation in my country,” Nikpai said. “It’s not good.”

The Iraqi Football Team

During the days of Saddam Hussein, his son Uday was the chief of Iraqi football. He had a simple reward system for his players. According to wikipedia and this article in The Age, this was the Dark Generation

Motivational speeches: “Players’ legs will be cut off”
Missing practice: Prison terms
Own goals / Missed Penalties: Flogging with thorns
Losses: Flogging with electric cables; baths in raw sewage

In 1996, Iraq was ranked 139 in the world, compared to a ranking of 39 in 2004. It was one of the top teams in Asia in the Eighties.

Saddam Hussein and the war that followed played havoc. Local leagues were disrupted, Iraqi players were busy protecting themselves. Inspite of all this, the game continued. The successes of the struggle came.

  1. In 2004 Athens Olympics, they came fourth
  2. In 2006 Asian Games, they took the silver
  3. In 2007 AFC Asian Cup, they took the trophy

This made them the Team of the Year across various fora.

Afghanistan and Iraq doing well in sports – Can it sustainably raise the spirits of the two nations?

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