Some anniversaries are not so fond in the memory, as was the case for the young Afghanistan Development Team who, on August 15th 2022, looked back at a year that had changed their lives forever, emotions I could never and should never try to describe were overpowering on this day.
A match was due to take place on this day, thanks to Martin Tate who brought his South Yorkshire Police side to play the team after providing venue and officials as well as covering all costs for the game. This match was not a game that would emphasise a win at all cost mentality, but a day that would celebrate football in its beauty, the coming together against all odds of a group of players who 12 months back would have thought it impossible to do so. This was not just a game for the Afghanistan girls, but a game for every woman and girl in the world who had fought for basic rights, battled for freedom or had ever had to fight for all their worth to do something so simple as playing a sport they loved.
And so it was, on a hot Monday evening, the Afghan team played their second game in a year after working and training so hard, supported by the wonderful players and coaching staff of Chesterfield Ladies FC, they set about their game. There was not a dry eye in the house as the national anthem rung out, proudly and prominently sung by the players, hand on heart, tears streaming. The pain and anguish of a year of hurt and sorrow mixed in with the excitement of simply being part of the occasion. I sobbed as I watched the girls from a distance taking time to observe every face and every emotion, I could never feel what they felt and I could never experience their experiences, but I could do the only thing I knew to do and give them constantly great football experiences.
Onto the match, the expectations and nervousness hung in the air as all waited for the game to start. For the main it was a pretty even game, both sides having chances and both sides battling hard. It was SYP who took the lead through a well worked goal that caught the defence unawares, followed shortly by another when a one on one went the way of SYP.
Half time came and the girls were 2-0 down, hopes dashed but the glimmers of hope still stirring. There are perhaps no group of people in the world I have met who are quite as resilient as these girls, nobody who had endured so much yet had so much hope and as if art was imitating life, the second half of the game was a representation of everything the girls were.
A quick goal for the Afghan team set the tone for the rest of the game, a cheer erupted from the sidelines, pure joy at having seen the first goal since the arrival in the UK. This was followed by a second goal, an equaliser for the Afghan team and yet another roar. The full hope had returned, the hearts were on fire and this game was anybody’s for the taking. Despite scares at the back, the third goal came, the girls took the lead, the crowd went crazy not quite believing the turnaround.
Ten minutes to go and the sun had gone a long time ago, the darkness was setting in, it reminded me of my time as a child growing up on Sheffield’s tough housing estates playing football on the field and squeezing every ounce of light for just one more kick. The opposition were threatening to equalise, but a counter attack took the pressure off. As the ball flew into the box I held my breath, it seemed to bounce around and take an age, but with some confusion the ball ended up over the line and the Afghan team led 4-2. That was it, that was the moment, they had surely done enough.
The last ten minutes defied logic, time has never gone so slow, in what seemed like an age the final whistle blew, cue scenes of joy, cue celebrations and cue relief at what had just taken place in front of us. Dancing, music and pure emotion took over the whole scene, I was mobbed at one point, I have no idea who by, but I was caught up in a scene that I can only liken to having won some major tournament, the only difference was this was more special and meant so much more.
Who knows what is next up for this young team, but we will be working hard to face the next challenge on the pitch, whatever that may be. But for now, I am sure somewhere the players are still dancing, still singing and still celebrating their historic win.