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Afghanistan Kicks off its First Rugby Tournament

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KABUL: Afghanistan kicked off its first official rugby tournament on Friday, with organisers hoping the game will one day be as popular as buzkashi, a kind of polo played with the carcass of a headless goat.

Cricket and football have already gained a strong following, and regional sporting success has offered a rare glimmer of hope in the war-wracked country. But enthusiasts believe Afghans, who have faced decades of conflict and hardship, are even better suited to the rough and tumble of the rugby field, which is more akin the national sport buzkashi, without the need for horses.

Ten teams from four different provinces gathered in central Kabul for the sevens competition, the first since the Afghan Rugby Federation won affiliation from the Asian Rugby Football Union last month.

“It’s becoming popular and soon it will replace cricket and football,” said Asad Ziar, the ARF’s chief executive officer. “We’re a rough, tough people. We’re physically set for this game, which is very energetic and fast.

“It’s the new buzkashi. Our people love that game — but we can’t afford to buy a horse for every player.” With just 220 players registered with the ARF, rugby has a long way to go before it can claim to be anywhere near as popular as buzkashi, football or cricket.

A small group of onlookers stood on the sidelines Friday, many watching the rugby for the first time. “What’s the name of this game? Why is the ball shaped like that? Why is the goal so high?” asked 15-year-old Abdul Rassol.

“I like this game, it’s fantastic. But where is the goal keeper?” The UK embassy is sponsoring the two-day tournament and the players were confident that — given the right support — rugby can take off.

“Afghans love war, that’s why they love rugby. The Afghan people are not scared,” said Mohammad Edris, 25, a dentist from Kabul. “But if we are going to be successful we need support.”

Taking a break from refereeing, Steve Brooking, 47, from Bristol, England, said finding coaches who understand the game is one of the difficulties. “But rugby has already captured the imagination,” said Brooking, who works for the United Nations and is a technical advisor to the ARF, which only started up in June.

“The Afghans are big and strong and fit. They’re not afraid of physical contact.” Under the Taliban, who ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, sport was highly restricted. But Afghanistan’s national sports teams have experienced some success, and rugby will face strong competition from football and cricket.

The country’s football team recently reached the South Asian Football Federation finals, losing to India 4-0. And Afghanistan won the Asia Cricket Council T20 Cup in Nepal. At the Chaman Huzuri ground in Kabul, football was being played on all but one of the dozen or more pitches.

And even the competing rugby teams were kitted out in the football shirts of popular national and club football teams.

“Rugby needs a lot of power. I thought this is a sport I can play,” said Mohammad Yaman Nazary, 23, his huge frame barely fitting into his Brazilian football shirt. “We want rugby to be more popular than football and for our team to beat the neighbouring countries. “We want to show the Afghan people that we can be heroes in sport.”