Basketball Underdogs: The Afghanistan National Team
The Olympics is the greatest representation of national athletic pride. Somehow every couple of years, patriotism is met with a degree of innocence and acceptance that is too often forgotten in conflict and negotiation.
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Five years ago, Afghanistan re-entered international basketball when the county's Olympic committee decided to draft a team for the 2006 Asian Games. A year later, the committee hired Mamo Rafiq, who was the first Afghan immigrant to play in the NCAA first for Idaho State and then UC Davis.
With a country at war, wrestling with a deteriorating infrastructure and rooted instability, training in Afghanistan was near impossible. The Afghan committee rebuilt the basketball team by recruiting expatriates to the United States through the Afghan Sports Federation. Players who responded were first-generation Afghan-Americans who had predominantly played in recreational leagues, with a few coming from small colleges.
The team was met with some hesitancy by Afghan nationals. Being comprised exclusively by expatriates, the team fought for acceptance: proving that they too had been brought up with the culture and tradition of other Afghans.
Organized across oceans and state borders, most players had day jobs and were scattered across the United States. The early months of the team were financed chiefly with their own money or family money. The perseverance and consistency of the team was monitored and motivated by Rafiq. He opened up his home to players, when they could not afford hotels or flights. His passion for the game and creating a team that could represent Afghanistan fueled his dedication. The team held a similar sentiment. "We don't mind sleeping on the floor," Ali Noorzad, a team member who works at his father's car dealership in Virginia, said. "We know the only way we're going to prevail is by our own camaraderie."
Despite a gold medal win last year in the South Asian Games, the only international title by Afghanistan in any team sport, the team will not be able to compete in the 2012 Olympic tournament after requests for visas from Uzbekistan to travel to a prequalifying tournament were denied. The team has faced a lot of hardship but still prevails. "We have sacrificed so much with no real benefit," Mashriqi, another player said, "with the exception of pride and honor."
In a nation that is suffering from political and military turmoil, it is symbols such as this of genuine patriotic pride which can foster a greater national unity than continued war.
Hannah Lythe is policy and outreach associate at Sojourners.