The Afghanistan National Football Team's triumph in the 2013 SAFF Championship is the biggest victory in Afghanistan football history, and it rivals Rohullah Nikpai's back-to-back taekwondo bronze medals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics as the biggest sports accomplishment the country has ever seen.
What makes the victory more special is the short amount of time in which Afghanistan went from a struggling side to the highest ranked team in South Asia. Afghanistan lost all three group stage matches in the 2009 edition of the SAFF Championship. A mere two years later, they made it all the way to the finals, where they fell 4-0 to India. They jumped from 193 to 139 in FIFA's ranking of international squads in the same period, and this week have moved up seven more spots to 132.
This dramatic turn-around in Afghanistan football coincides with the National Team coaching staff's successful efforts to recruit Afghan footballers whose families are now residing abroad. Forward Sandjer Ahmadi explained in a recent interview how he was introduced to the National Team: "My first time with the team was in the SAFF 2011 Championship and a representative in Germany got in touch with me. Of course I was very happy to join the country's team. They called me and said they liked my game and wanted me for the national team. It was a very proud moment for me."
In fact, the majority of Afghanistan's starting 11 in the finals of the 2013 SAFF Championship live and play their club football abroad: goalkeeper Mansur Faqiryar (Germany); defenders Mustafa Hadid (Germany) and Islam Amiri (India, although lives in Afghanistan); midfielders Yusef Mashriqi (USA) and Mustafa Azadzoy (Germany); and forwards Sandjer Ahmadi (Germany) and Bilal Arezou (Norway). Midfielder Arash Hatifie (USA) started every game prior to the finals.
The National Team's recent victory could mean two different things for the future of Afghanistan football. First, it could inspire more Afghan footballers living abroad to seek a place on the National Team. Many young football fans dream that 20-year-old Mustafa Amini, now training with German mega-club Borussia Dortmund, might one day return to play for his father's homeland.
But the victory could also convince the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) that it needs to develop home-grown talent in order to guarantee success in the long term. Imagine a SAFF Championship side in which all the players were brought up in an Afghan football academy, played in an expanded and improved Afghan Premier League, and received a salary and benefits warranted by their talent. This is the next frontier for football in Afghanistan.
The 2013 National Team that brought the SAFF Cup home from Nepal has provided Afghanistan's up-and-coming footballers with a new set of heroes closer to home. The list of football role-models now includes names such as Maroof, Faqiryar, and Azadzoy in addition to Messi and Ronaldo. (One of my personal heroes of the tournament is Mujtaba Faiz, a Kabul-based defender who, due to injuries, was unexpectedly called upon in the semifinals and finals and responded by not allowing a single goal.)
It's now up to the AFF—and Afghanistan football fans everywhere—to make sure this renewed enthusiasm is not wasted. It will be the success of the shift from imported to home-grown talent that will determine how high Afghanistan football can rise.