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Where the Cup means nothing

Football was severely restricted under the Taliban, but now children are learning what it is like to kick a ball around the streets - and who Man United are. Adi Bloom reports

David Beckham. Manchester United. World Cup final. There are few words or phrases that transcend linguistic and cultural barriers so effectively. The language of football is understood from the street markets of Vietnam to the rainforests of Brazil.

But not in Afghanistan, a country isolated by years of war and repression, where access is denied to the outside world and its sports.

"Northern Afghanistan is one of the few places in the world where you can go and speak to reasonably educated teenage boys who have no idea who Manchester United are," said Ben Perks, UNICEF emergency officer in Mazar-e-Sharif.

"They're not aware of the World Cup in the way children would be in other cities of the same size in Asia. There's no public awareness."

Under the Taliban, football as a spectator sport was still permitted but its players and followers were severely constrained. Team members were forced to play in tracksuit trousers: a visiting Pakistani team who stripped down to shorts were punished and sent back home.

Applause was also outlawed. Fans had to demonstrate their approval by shouting "Allahu akbar" (God is great) three times.

But restraints on amateur football were greater - along with other recreational activities, it was frowned upon. But since the fall of the Taliban, said Mr Perks, Afghan streets are regularly full of young boys kicking a ball around.

Volleyball is the national sport of Afghanistan, and cricket also retains some popularity, especially among former refugees in Pakistan. But on the streets boys - Afghan tradition still prevents women from participating in public - are choosing to kick around a football.

"In Herat, from the crack of dawn to dusk, you see young boys and teenagers holding informal games in the park," said Chulho Hyun, UNICEF officer in Kabul. "It's very important for building teamwork, self-confidence, improving through practising - these are all very affirmative aspects of sports," said Mr Hyun.

Acknowledging the vital role that sport and play have in encouraging personal growth and development, the UNICEF Back To School campaign distributes recreational materials to Afghan schools, along with educational resources. These recreational boxes contain footballs, skipping ropes and volleyball kits.

Aid workers distributing supplies also offer basic training to teachers, so that they can coach the children.

"It is important for children to learn and play and express themselves. Football helps children to have positive conflicts, to compete, to have a sense of fair play," said Mr Perks, who plays regular games with Afghan youths, kicking off at 5.30am so that his team-mates are not late for work.

"Football creates positive role models. If you're trying to raise kids in a war zone, you'd rather have footballers as role models than gangsters or warlords."


* Hold a fundraising football match, charging participants and spectators for entry. Perhaps pupils against teachers?

* Sell half-time refreshments.

* Penalty shoot-out: participants pay to score as many goals as possible in one minute. The winner gets a small prize. Involve parentson sports day, challenging them to join in.

* Involve the whole schoolin a table football league, charging a fee to enter.

* Hold a sponsored event.

* Sports raffle: ask local sports shops and clubs to donate prizes.

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