TOKYO — One of the world’s toughest contact sports is gaining popularity in one of the world’s roughest nations: Afghanistan.
Foreign players are visiting the country to run coaching clinics, teams have been established in several cities and a tournament is scheduled to coincide with the October opening of Kabul’s refurbished Olympic Stadium.
British-born United Nations worker Steve Brooking, who is helping organize the sport in Kabul, said the Afghan Rugby Federation was established last month.
“The rugby team was set up by Afghans who had lived in the U.S. and Britain and played or watched rugby and thought it would be a good thing for Afghanistan,” said Brooking, who also helped organize another British sport, cricket, in Afghanistan in 2002.
Afghan Rugby Federation director Abdul Khalil Bik, who has managed several overseas tours for Afghan cricket teams, said this week in a Facebook message that he decided to promote the sport in his home country after falling in love with the game while living in Britain.
“If we have cricket, why not rugby?” he said. “Me and my friend back home (in Afghanistan) came up with the idea: Let’s start rugby in Afghanistan.”
Afghans are renowned for their individual toughness, an attribute that should make them fine rugby players, Brooking said.
“Afghans are great at individual sports such as taekwondo and boxing and wrestling, and they don’t shy away from the physical contact of rugby,” he said.
The national sport, Buzkashi — a game of unwritten rules that nobody follows in which horsemen battle over a headless goat carcass — has much in common with rugby, he said.
“In Buzkashi, you to be very strong and prepared to [go all in],” he said. “It’s like rugby on horseback.”
Bik agreed that his countrymen are natural rugby players.
“They are physically fit, dynamic and energetic. They are also very competitive for concentrating on such a sport.”
That bodes well for the growth of the sport in Afghanistan, he added.
“In the space of just a few years, Afghanistan has excelled at cricket, with the national cricket team just missing out on reaching the finals of the latest Cricket World Cup,” he said. “I am sure Afghans will quickly take to the tough and very exciting game of rugby.”
From the “ping pong diplomacy” of the 1970s — when a thaw in relations was brought about in part when China invited American table tennis players to visit — to the Olympic games themselves, sports has warmed international relations and even been an important part of diplomatic breakthroughs.
The Afghan rugby federation is working with the International Rugby Board and plans to affiliate to the Asian Rugby Football Union, which sets up and monitors competitions, Brooking said. Neighboring rugby nations such as Iran, Pakistan and India have offered to help train coaches.
Bik said his goal is for Afghanistan to participate in Olympic rugby and, one day, compete against legendary teams such as the New Zealand All Blacks or South African Springboks.
In recent weeks, the Afghans registered with the National Olympic Committee. The 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will be the first time since 1924 that rugby is part of the Olympics.
The Afghan rugby players recently held a weeklong coaching clinic in Kabul that featured an Afghan-born member of the Indian national team, Brooking said.
Interest has grown rapidly with 25 players now attending regular practices and another team formed in Herat, he said.
The Afghan players’ next goal is to establish touch rugby and the seven-a-side version of the full-contact game in schools, he said.
A group of South African players serving with the International Security Assistance Force is organizing a tournament to coincide with the 2011 Rugby World Cup October, that will feature ISAF rugby teams and at least one Afghan team, Brooking said.
The tournament organizers hope to play rugby at Kabul’s Olympic Stadium, which is being repaired with the help of U.S. funding and is due to open in three months, he said.