Denver in the John?

With the NRL and RLIF locked in a war of words over the Denver Test, is it time for a change of approach in dealings with the insular southern hemisphere citadels?

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Steve Mascord

With the NRL and RLIF locked in a war of words over the Denver Test, is it time for a change of approach in dealings with the insular southern hemisphere citadels?

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The scheduled Test between England and New Zealand is creating a stir in the sport ©Loverugbyleague/Gettyimages

A letter from the NRL, its clubs and the Rugby League Players Association saying they do not support the Great Britain-New Zealand Test in Denver next month was hardly a bombshell.

In other news, Donald Trump is not a member of Greenpeace and dogs don’t particularly like cats.

One could go into the sheer childishness of the letter, including the contention that although the clubs earlier claimed the match at the Sports Authority Field was a money grab, the RFL’s insistence that it’s not – which the clubs seemingly accept – proves they are right about the game being a bad idea anyway. They seem stunned there is an actual attempt to breach the American market without them – and ignorant of the fact the promoter has already been given the 2025 World Cup!

We could also comment on the arrogance of the NRL franchises for claiming some sort of veto over where the game is played, as if an international involving two foreign countries has anything to do with them.

But I realised some time ago that arguing about Denver is a sure recipe for a headache. I’m kind of over it. The only thing of substance in the letter was that the NRL would not punish any club which refused to release players this year and would not release anyone for the same fixture next year or the year after.

Which means we’ll be having the same headache-inducing debate for another 12 months.

Some solace can be taken from the fact the NRL, its clubs and Players Association seemed to take two months to draft a simple letter while England players jumped on the front foot immediately.

The fact that a similar mass declaration was not forthcoming from New Zealand stars suggests they have more to fear in the face of Australasian resistance to the game; the New Zealand Warriors vow to stand down those involved the following week could be interpreted as either admirable player welfare or a little intimidatory. The Kiwis bottomed out in so many ways last year and this sort of distraction is not going to encourage players and fans to rally around a rebuild.

If Tonga replace them in the Rugby League Challenge next year … wow, I’d love to see the clubs try to stop Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo getting on a plane. These are the sort of tactics the promoters can now entertain, thanks to the helpful forewarning of their enemies in Australia.

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The Sports Authority Field, Denver ©Tripadvisor

The England and New Zealand (or Tongan) players have 13 months to gird their loins for another administrative battle; the RFL and NZRL are smaller organisations who can act more quickly than the war-torn domestic Australian bureaucracy.

But how far should they go?

To me it seems a clear case of discrimination on grounds of nationality that Papuans, Fijians, Tongans and Samoans are being released to represent their countries on a weekend when Englishmen and New Zealanders are expressly forbidden. Surely it is challengeable in court.

The NRL’s response, then, would be to simply cancel the Pacific Tests.

And this is where we default in rugby league. While around the edges, we are quick to rebellion and discord, at the centre we still try to do things by consensus. We think of ourselves as strategic. Why fight so hard for one game, at the expense of two more?

But I can’t help but think that we are entering a period so important in the history of the game that we might be better off ripping and tearing and damning the consequences.

Withhold prize money from Australia in response to their governing body refusing to enforce RLIF rules regarding player releases. If last year’s World Cup monies have not been passed on, withhold the next one.

Take that legal action against clubs over apparent discrimination. Pick two full strength teams and make a big deal of players being pressured to drop out, one by one, by their clubs.

Play the game anyway, if necessary with no NRL players (we’re talking 2019 here). Cancel the British Lions Tour if the Aussies use that as a big stick.

Of course the problem is that the RLIF has an Australian chairman but allegedly the changes made in the last 12 months are there to increase independence. Let’s see some.

I’d like to see a leader who doesn’t care if he is sacked, who just makes an example of those holding the game back, refuses to sign non-disclosure agreements and goes down in a blaze of glory.

Bugger consensus. If someone comes out and highlights all that is wrong, his or her legacy will be that we know what must be done to make it right.

Steve Mascord

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Tutankhamun, Cleopatra and now Mohamed Salah – How Egypt’s new Pharaoh fired his nation to Russia

In this series we look at nations that can offer something a little different on the world stage. Episode 1: Mo and Co

Jack Douglas

In this series we look at nations that can offer something a little different on the world stage. Episode 1: Mo and Co

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Fans took to the streets in Cairo following Egypt’s qualification ©Reuters

Despite passing away at the age of 19 after only ruling for 9 years, Tutankhamun is perhaps the most famous of all the Pharaohs. The tale of Cleopatra’s demise at the hands of an Asp, or teeth for that matter, echo across Egyptian and Roman folklore still to this day.

But now, a new King rules the land.

In Egypt’s penultimate qualifying game, only a win would do for El Phara’ena – The Pharaohs.

In what has become quite the regular occurrence this season, Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah scored to put Egypt 1-0 up in the 62nd minute against Congo.

Aiming to reach their first World Cup in 28 years and only their 3rd ever, the dreams of the nation looked in tatters as Arnold Bouka Moutou equalised in the 88th minute.

When 5 minutes of additional time were shown, there was hope for The Pharaohs that they could go on to get a winner and restore their lead.

If there is anything the footballing world has learnt this year, it is do not, under any circumstances, give Mo Salah a chance.

When Mahmoud Hassan, or Trézéguet as he is commonly known as, was brought down in the area; Salah was given his chance. A spot-kick with the last kick of the game to send his nation to Russia.

Liverpool’s ‘Egyptian King’ smashed home the penalty to the ‘keepers left sparking scenes of pandemonium within the stadium and throughout the whole country.

Whilst the Congolese finished bottom of the group, their players looked on in despair, heartbroken, after managing to almost scrape a point against the heavy favourites.

For Mo & Co though, the victory was everything.

Africa’s most successful nation, with 7 Cup of Nations trophies to their name, have underperformed massively when it comes to qualifying for the World Cup, having previously only qualified for the second instalment of the tournament in 1934 and then having to wait 56 years before reaching Italia ’90.

So with the reward being a rare opportunity to prove themselves on the world stage, Héctor Cúper’s men delivered, giving the 96 million strong population something to be proud of following the political turmoil and unrest of recent years.

Salah’s penalty sparked celebrations so wild, it would be fair to estimate the country hasn’t seen anything like it in its history since its earliest people settled in the 10th millennium BC.

A rare positive rally in Cairo following Egypt’s qualification – Via Reuters

The man of the moment, Salah, was delighted with his country’s exploits when he spoke at the 2017 CAF awards (1), stating: “In qualification for the world cup we did very well and we qualified. We deserved that and everyone saw that, and I am excited. I am very sure we are going to do something special in the World Cup!”

Egypt’s talisman is certainly preparing very well for Russia 2018 as he has played an instrumental role in setting up a Champions League final for Liverpool against Real Madrid. The Pharaohs’ number 10 added: “I want to be the best player ever in Egypt in history. I am working hard every day on improving myself.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi congratulated his people for their wild celebrations on the streets of Cairo following the match, and the feeling within Egypt was one of euphoria and relief.

Egypt’s most successful club Al Ahly SC have won 86 domestic trophies and have lifted the CAF Champions League on 8 occasions. The country’s success continently has been the envy of the majority of Africa, and it is this continental success the nation are hoping will kick start a long stay alongside the elite of world football.

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Celebrations became heated ©EPA

Héctor Cúper, the Argentine that has masterminded Egypt’s recent resurgence puts qualification down due to hard work (2).

“What happened before in the previous 28 years I think is difficult to explain that but I’d like to talk about my era with the Egyptian national team. The philosophy of our play and especially the defensive part we’ve worked hard for. The philosophy and hard work helped us get to the world cup.”

When speaking with FIFA, he admits the tournament “will be competitive all round”.

“We’re all raring to go and no one can say they’ve got an easier or tougher draw, because it’s all about competing as the best you can and every team poses difficulties in football.

“It’s never easy in a competition featuring the best national teams in the world. I enjoyed the draw, you can avoid the likes of Brazil but then you draw the likes of Russia and we’ll compete the same way and here’s hoping it will all go well for us!”

Cúper is certainly focused on the task at hand, as he adds: “As for our draw, we know all about Uruguay’s qualities. They’ve got great firepower up front in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Russia will be playing on home turf. Saudi Arabia are in the same boat as us; we’re both going to have to dig really deep to match the level of the other teams.”

As many sporting underdog stories show, anything on the day is possible. This mentality is mirrored by the gaffer.

“Regardless of the opposition, I’m always optimistic. It’s that simple.”

If Salah can beat the likes of Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez in Egypt’s first game way out east in Ekaterinburg, Cúper and the nations’ optimism may just turn into reality.

حظا موفقا لفراعنة! – Good look to The Pharaohs!

Jack Douglas

Sources:

1) True Kop LFC – YouTube. 5/1/18 Mohamed Salah: I want to be Egypt’s best ever Player. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gYH1H3XWTw

2) FIFA TV – YouTube. 1/12/17 Hector CUPER – Egypt – Final Draw Reaction. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEvibH9EKGA

The Commonwealth Games: An integral stepping stone for growth

How the Commonwealth Games provide a path for the improvement of sporting competition as well as both individual and collective performance.

Spencer Kassimir

How the Commonwealth Games provide a path for the improvement of sporting competition as well as both individual and collective performance.

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Gold Coast, Australia hosted the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

With 2018’s Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast now completed in totality, it is interesting from this American expat’s perspective on why there has been so much negativity towards the event. Yes, there are issues to do with who benefits most financially and whether the opening and closing ceremonies were to people’s likings but what interests me most, are both the complaints and comments about the game’s meaninglessness. To specify, many have commented that the value of participation and even earning a medal here is of little to no value; only the Olympics or top level of the said sport is worth talking about. This is not only technically incorrect within the statement itself but the reasons for such are limited in perspective.

One of the most common reasons given is that the Games represent an archaic and outdated worldview of when the sun never set on the British Empire. There is no denying that the contest is the rebranded Empire Games to reflect the evolving zeitgeists of 1954s British Empire and Commonwealth Games (Vancouver, Canada), the final change dropping the title “Empire” in 1970’s British Commonwealth Games (Edinburgh, Scotland), and most recent change in 1978 dropping the “British” to simply The Commonwealth Games. Yet, as we can see even from the name changes, this opinion that the games stand for and represent the classical sense of empire simply by its origins is, at best, reductionist.

Rather, by banding together, these countries are able to compete at an international level in the same way many countries with lesser populations or economic investment would be able to in between their local and unrestricted international representations. For example, the “All-State” and similar titles bestowed on athletes in the United States, a country with 350 million legal residents and roughly an additional 50 million more with varying documentation. Then add the interstate and national competition to the equation and it is easy to see the value in these games in even a domestic setting where there is a critical mass of population. Not each state has the same economic support or numbers in population to compete at the same level but that is not to say that this makes interstate competition a waste of time. Likewise, the Commonwealth of Nations has around 2.4 billion, around one third of the world’s population. Even without India’s approximate 1.2 billion, a sixth of the earths population banded together between 52 other states being represented by 70 other teams dwarfs that of the United States.

Australia, a country with 24.13 million people has such a disproportionate strength in the games even when compared to India and others countries being represented. There are plenty of countries with the capability to compete at greater levels internationally but simply do not have the ability to do so on their own with the limited numbers in domestic competition. This is the core beauty of the Commonwealth Games. It raises the bar for some while giving a great practice between domestic and international competition for others. Other smaller and established countries do not have the ability to come together and compete in the same large-scale and organised fashion that the Commonwealth Games provide. It is simply too costly and, from a cultural perspective, lacks and binding ties with identity to motivate or justify the exercise. With this said, it is clear to see the games as a gap filler between other domestic, regional, and international competitions not afforded to other nations.

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2018 Commonwealth Games aquatic centre ©Crystal Pools

It can be argued that the reason for the goal for, for example, the 50 states in the USA or the four nations of Great Britain working together in competition works because, at the end of the day, they all compete under the banner of the US and UK and this is what drives the engine to compete within each other. However, this is flawed because, though this is the case with the former, the latter of the two tends to divide in many competitions such as the rugby league, rugby union, and soccer World Cup competitions. However, this is not the case in the Olympics where the UK remains unified. Therefore, the perceived motivation of a collective good in the greater scheme is not only a moot point from this but shows that there is still a strongly individual and localised motivation to compete.

Herein lies the advantage. From a fan engagement and, arguably, economic perspective compare the parallel stories of New Zealand’s All-Blacks and Australia’s Wallabies from 1987 to date. The former are from a smaller country but invested in as many seamless transitions from childhood to international representation. The clearest difference is their investment into their national competition as a level between that of the senior club sides and Super Rugby. Australia, as of the 1990s, was of the Reaganomics mindset of a top-down approach believing that if the Wallabies were good, the country would follow, watch, and create future players that would represent the country strongly. There was no national competition between the local clubs and Super Rugby until the National Rugby Competition was launched a few years ago long after the country had lost so much interest in their once great side and stopped producing players as dominant as they once were between 1991 and 2003.

The analogy is clear, though the Commonwealth Games are the place for the pinnacle level of competition for many sports and athletics featured here, for the rest, as in the case of the prior rugby example, there needs to be a stepping stone of attainable reach between each level of competition and by offering this opportunity in the form of the Commonwealth Games, value is not only created but increased in the same way New Zealand’s rugby union has thrived whereas Australia’s has struggled. As such, the Commonwealth games despite complaints of not being a true international competition and other socio-political gripes, provides a beneficial and requisite service in improving athletes and nations though the gap it fills between levels of international competition.

Spencer Kassimir

Will rugby league snatch defeat from the jaws of victory …. again?

Historian Tony Collins argues rugby league is better placed than most sports to capitalise on the digital revolution – but will it’s cultural and commercial flaws collude to hold it back?

Steve Mascord

Historian Tony Collins argues rugby league is better placed than most sports to capitalise on the digital revolution – but will it’s cultural and commercial flaws collude to hold it back?

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Promotional material for the planned Test between New Zealand and England in Denver, USA.

You wouldn’t call them headlines. They are down-page news stories. But at least they are in the paper, where 10 years ago they would not have been.

I can remember the first time I saw Tonga play Samoa in rugby league. It was 2006 at Campbelltown Stadium; Feleti Mateo had just come back from his stint with London Broncos.

When the two sides got in each other’s faces during their pre-match rituals, we didn’t know what they were called and we’d never seen it before. That’s myself and the other 900 people present.

11 years later, Tonga beat New Zealand to make the World Cup semi-finals – where they were joined by Fiji who have now made it to the final four three consecutive times.

Things have come a long way … but then they haven’t.

Now to those headlines. In the immediate aftermath of the success of tier two nations at the World Cup, Fiji players threatened a strike, Lebanon players threatened a strike while Tonga and Samoa initially baulked at having to go back to Campbelltown this coming June.

New Zealand and England seem to have struck the jackpot by being invited to play in Denver’s Sports Authority Field with the backing of the NFL’s Broncos.

But the NRL clubs resisted this for months and are still grumbling. They didn’t think teams would want to travel overseas for internationals!

There are two competing causal aspects to this apparent cluster-youknowwhat.

One is the old rugby league default position of “what’s in it for me?”; that goes back to 1895 and the George Hotel. The Fijian players argued they were due payments and the Rugby League International Federation has intervened to make sure they are paid.

The Lebanese players seemed more vague, citing only a “lack of trust”. There are whispers of defamation proceedings in response to how this curious dispute has been reported in Australia.

Tonga know that if they played New Zealand three times each year, it would be the Shakey Isles’ answer to Origin. It’s about money – but not necessarily for the players. The Tongan Rugby League doesn’t have too many paʻanga in the bank and what they saw in New Zealand showed they could, and should, have a lot more.

Samoa coach Matt Parish seems unhappy about the level of support from just about everywhere to just about everyone.

So that’s one side of the argument. Rebellion is in the blood. It’s a working class game. You have amateur officials administering teams full of professionals who are used to a certain level of sports medicine and accommodation and remuneration and – as colleague Robert Burgin pointed out – they are arguing over nickels and pennies.

But the other side of the argument is: why should they just be nickels and pennies?

The RLIF has just advertised for two new general managers, one for the northern and one for the southern hemisphere.

That will take the international governing body’s total number of employees to a grand total of three.

Is it any wonder there’s no money, or power, in the international game?

In RLIF speak, Test series are “bilateral” games. That means the countries involved are just left to organise them. The RLIF only gets money from World Cups and the much-vaunted second property, a Nines World Cup, has attracted only luke warm interest from potential partners so far.

Plenty of cynics believe the Nines idea is more to satisfy the Collective Bargaining Agreement in Australia by minimising the wear and tear on NRL players than actually developing the international game.

So there’s our perfect storm: argumentative players and domestic officials and one hand and on the other an under-resourced international federation at the mercy of cashed up, self interested clubs.

But despite all this, and as I said at the start of this column, the arc of the game’s history is bending towards expansion and globalisation – even if incrementally.

It has to. Renowned rugby historian Tony Collins says the digital revolution, like newspapers, radio and television, can and will rearrange the balance of power between sports worldwide.

“We’re now in a position where the prospects for the game, if the opportunities are taken, are brighter than they’ve been for decades,” Collins – whose got a great new podcast called Rugby Reloaded – says.

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©Rugby Reloaded

“You can’t tell because you’re in the middle of it, so it’s hard to get an objective view.

“But I think sport, at the moment, is undergoing a revolution.

“The ease with which you can travel between continents thanks to low cost flights, the ease with which you can communicate across continents thanks to the internet and the way sport can be seen all over the world thanks to digital television really changes the scenario around the world for sport.

“When modern sport first emerged, it emerged at the same time as newspapers. Then you get the radio in the 1920s and 1930s and the same thing happens – radio publicises sport, sport provides the content.

“Despite the obvious weaknesses that the game has, it’s actually in a very strong position to take advantage of the big changes that are taking place now because we are both a mass spectator sport but we’re a small mass spectator sport.

“Things can change quite quickly in rugby league in a way that they can’t in soccer – it’s just a huge juggernaut – and to some extent, in a way they can’t in rugby union because rugby union’s very tightly bound with tradition.

“So the opportunities we’ve got, with the Wolfpack and a World Cup in the States, the possibility of other franchises, the way people are now considering Perth playing in a different comp than the Australian one…

“We can do things that other sports can’t because we’re small and manoeuvrable and still have that mass spectator sport image.

“We don’t have all those guys in blazers, the rampant tradition.

“We’re in this fantastically exciting period – if we take the opportunities.”

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From Beirut to Sydney – The boys who did their nation proud

In their most important ever fixture, Lebanon were losing at half time. With the deficit only six points, they had 40 minutes to make history.

Jack Douglas

In their most important ever fixture, Lebanon were losing at half time. With the deficit only six points, they had 40 minutes to make history.

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Lebanon fans at the World Cup ©Lebanon Rugby League (@LebanonRL)

In their most important ever fixture, The Lebanon rugby league team found themselves 22-16 down at half time. Tries from Adam Doueihi, Abbas Miski and James Elias saw the Lebanese claw themselves back into contention after trailing heavily for most of the half.

With the deficit only six points, Brad Fittler’s men had 40 minutes to make history. Minutes into the second period Doueihi thought he had scored his second, but a controversial Video Referee’s decision ruled the try out.

A Hingano penalty meant Tonga lead by eight and despite a converted Miski try late on, the Tongans held on to record a 24-22 victory, shattering the dreams of thousands of Lebanese fans.

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The heart-breaking moment Lebanon’s World Cup came to an end  ©Lebanon Rugby League (@LebanonRL)

After nearly sixteen years, the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990; leaving an estimated 120,000 – 150,000 dead with a further 200,000 wounded. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 resulted in one of the most infamous sieges in military history.

As Israeli forces bombarded Beirut from air, land and sea in an attempt to assassinate key Palestinian leaders, a multinational peacekeeping force was sent in to Beirut to help evacuate Palestinians.

The US, French, Italian and British contingent helped restore some normality and to ensure the withdrawal of all foreign forces and aid, whilst helping to train the Lebanese military to prevent future conflict.

With Israel to the south and Syria to the north and east, you could be forgiven for expecting conflict to be ever-present. Despite this, the nation of six million has been recently making the headlines in a surprisingly positive fashion.

Rugby League

Les Cèdres (The Cedars) deservedly qualified for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup after comprehensively beating South Africa 90-28 on aggregate over two legs in Pretoria.

Lebanon were then drawn alongside eventual winners and runners up Australia and England, as well as France, and were expected to finish bottom. The top three in the group qualified for the knockout stages.

Travis Robinson, who plays for Newtown Jets in the New South Wales Premiership, built on his tally of six tries in qualifying as he went over twice; helping his side secure a shock 29-18 victory over the French in Canberra.

Robinson had previously enjoyed time in the NRL with Melbourne Storm, and his and his teams’ heroics against France was enough to qualify for the knockout stages and more importantly, receive automatic qualification for the 2021 World Cup.

Lebanon’s other two group stage fixtures saw them lose 29-10 to England before eventual champions Australia recorded a 34-0 victory against Les Cèdres. Both results warranted overwhelming respect from the League world as punters expected the English and Australians to record much higher scores against the then eighteenth ranked side.

With progression confirmed, Lebanon were drawn to face Tonga in the quarterfinals. At 3pm local time, 4am back here, the fixture in Christchurch kicked off. Whilst the Lebanese side came up short on that occasion, their adventure in the world cup was certainly admirable.

The positive performances and results Lebanon recorded means the side came away from the world cup with their heads held high. Now up to ninth in the world rankings, The Cedars find themselves ten places above Russia; the side that inflicted Lebanon’s heaviest ever defeat (80-0) back in 2008.

Despite the 24 man world cup squad featuring only one home-grown-player, the people of Lebanon are still enthralled with the game. The player in question, Raymond Sabat, plays for Lycans RL in Beirut.

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The Lebanon national side team that beat Italy in the Mediterranean Cup in 2017 ©FIRL/SportCode

The outside back wants the country to bring through more home grown talent to help progress the game, and thoughts like these are reflected by journalist Danny Kazandjian (1) who adds: “It is essential for countries like Lebanon to ensure there is a clear, robust cultural link between the country and the national team.

“Lebanon fields national teams at under-21s, under-18s and under-16s – last year the U21s and U18s toured Serbia – so the pathways are there now.”

Up and coming sports in countries such as Lebanon and other historical underdogs have often struggled in influencing young players and ensuring their youngsters have a clear pathway to the first team. The fact that the Lebanese Rugby League Federation are heavily investing in their youth teams epitomizes the hope and enthusiasm the nation has for its rapidly growing sport.

The Lebanon Rugby League Championship added another side to its roster in 2016, with Lycans RLFC now making it 5 domestic teams within the league. Collegiate Rugby is making a big impact in Lebanon. There are 2 university divisions, the first featuring 4 sides and the second division hosting 6 teams. As the game grows in Lebanon, the competitions are doing so too.

The Australian influence in the team is evident, with the majority of the Lebanese players playing at some level within the Australian pyramid. In an interview for the BBC (2), Lebanon head coach and ex-Aussie superstar Brad Fittler says that his players are beyond proud to represent their nation.

He states: “The majority [of the players] have both Lebanese parents. And if anyone has kept their identity in Australia it is the Lebanese community. They live together, they eat together – they’ve kept their identity more than most other nationalities that have come to this country.”

Les Cèdres were triumphant over an Italian side in June 2017 as they ran out 6-4 winners in a remarkably tight match. Unlike their World Cup squads, the fixture was played between two national sides using all domestic players, which proved pivotal in the progression of the Lebanese players, as Lebanon successfully defended their Mediterranean Cup title. But this success was unparalleled to what would follow.

Lebanon’s success at the world cup was unexpected to say the least, and now with qualification confirmed for 2021, who knows what unprecedented success the little nation can go on to achieve. With the tournament being held here in England, Lebanon are sure to leave a lasting impression here within the UK.

The national anthem titled: All of Us: For the Country, surely embodies the spirit of the Rugby team; as this group of players go on to make their nation even prouder.

Jack Douglas

Sources:

1 & 2: BBC Sport: Rugby League World Cup 2017: How has the sport become so popular in Lebanon? – 2nd November 2017

How important being home is for the Gibraltar national side

After decades of struggle to be accepted as a football nation, Gibraltarian football celebrates in style.

Jack Douglas

After decades of struggle to be accepted as a football nation, Gibraltarian football celebrates in style.

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Walker celebrates his winning goal ©Gibraltar Football Association

The Victoria Stadium held its breath. Finally in their proud home, Gibraltar’s homecoming in international football was deadlocked against Latvia.

With the game heading into the final minutes destined for a draw, the home side were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box. Step forward Liam Walker. With a wicked deflection the ball trickled into the Latvian net sparking scenes of pure jubilation.

The Reds held on to record a deserved, historic win. Their first as a FIFA nation, their second as a UEFA nation and, more importantly to the proud Gibraltarians, their first victory on home soil.

The Victoria Stadium, with the Rock as its stunning backdrop, opened in 1926 and was rebuilt in 1971 by the Royal Engineers. When Gibraltar were finally accepted by UEFA in May 2013, the stadium was not deemed to be of sufficient standard for competition. On 13th May 2016, the Rock could finally boast a FIFA affiliated team after endless attempts, intervention from the Court of Arbitration for Sport and intense Spanish opposition.

Forced to play 247 miles away in Faro, Portugal, Team 54 (the nickname given after becoming UEFA’s 54th member) faced Slovakia in their first official international match, managing a superb goalless draw.

A Kyle Casciaro volley gave the side their first official victory as his effort was enough to see off Malta in June 2014, again in Portugal.

Gibraltarian side Lincoln Red Imps ensured they went down in football history by beating Scottish giants Celtic in the first leg of the 2016/2017 Champions League second qualifying round. Gibraltarian football was put on the map to an extent. The Daily Record (1) ran with: “Take a look back as Hoops lose to minnows in Champions League qualifier” before going on to call the result “incredible”.

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The famous Rock of Gibraltar dominates the landscape ©Revolutionary War and Beyond

The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht resulted in Britain securing Gibraltar. Captured by an Anglo-Dutch fleet nine years prior, control of the Rock was finally ceded to Britain to ensure they withdrew from the War of Spanish Succession.

Ever since, Spain has highly contested the sovereignty of the Rock. The Siege of 1727 and the French backed Great Siege of Gibraltar (1779 – 1783) failed and Gibraltar remained under British command. Located at the gateway to the Mediterranean and at a naval choke-point, Operation Felix was a Nazi plan to capture the strategic Rock, but the invasion never materialised.

In the Gibraltarian sovereignty referendums of 1967 and 2002, 99% and 98% of Gibraltarians opted to remain British respectively. Throughout endless conflict and claims of sovereignty, the Rock of Gibraltar has stood tall and proud; and more importantly, proud to be British.

With plans to build a UEFA demanded Category 4 stadium at either two sites on the peninsula (Europa Point or Lathbury Barracks) coming under severe scrutiny and opposition from Gibraltarians, the GFA purchased Victoria Stadium from the Government of Gibraltar in April 2017 and began to develop the venue.

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Victoria Stadium ©Stadiony.net

This meant that the scene was set for Gibraltar to come home. With a festival of international football lined up and a commemorative kit being launched, the 32,000 strong population were elated.

With Gib’s Under 21 side losing 6-0 to an experienced Serbian side and then 5-0 to Russia, all pressure and expectancy lay on the first team; and in particular on the shoulders of Notts County’s Liam Walker. Gibraltar’s number 10 and joint top scorer signed for County after having previous spells with Portsmouth and Lincoln Red Imps after teenage trials with Manchester United, Aston Villa and Everton. One of only two professional players used against Latvia, Walker found himself lining up alongside policemen and customs agents.

With a population of 1.9 million compared with Gibraltar’s 32,000 and a world ranking of 131, 75 places above Gibraltar down in 206th, Latvia offered fierce competition. When experienced defender Joseph Chipolina pulled up during the warm up and with goalkeeper Kyle Goldwin making his international debut, punters could have been forgiven for backing the Latvians.

Lee Casciaro, brother of the previously mentioned Kyle, curled a shot just wide of the despairing Andris Vanins’ post which ended In the Gibraltar number 7 tweaking a hamstring and being unable to continue. Walker’s freekick finally gave the home side their much deserved goal in the 88th minute.

Walker was delighted with the victory in an interview with GBC (2) following the game: “Obviously we were going on the counter attack. I wanted to bring the ball inside and change the orientation on the ball. We won the foul. It was at a good distance and as soon as the free kick was given I knew I was going to go for goal and yeah, buzzing it had gone in.”

Being back home at Victoria Stadium is something Gibraltar and Walker were delighted with: “It’s absolutely amazing! It’s just what we wanted, to be on our home ground in front of our people because apart from us being on the pitch they are the ones who deserve this. The whole game they were supporting us and you can see when they are here it’s a plus for us as well so yeah, really happy with it.”

It has been quite the rollercoaster for FIFA’s newest nation. Sepp Blatter denied Gib’s membership claim because they weren’t an independent nation, despite the four home nations and the Faroe Islands having membership. UEFA accepted Team 54 despite strong opposition from the Spanish. In 2007 Spain threatened to withdraw all of its teams from UEFA competitions should Gibraltar be given membership.

When the sovereign territory were finally, and rightfully, accepted into world football they were subsequently forced to play at the Estádio Algarve in Portugal. So to be playing football back on home soil shows that the light at the end of the tunnel has been reached.

Whilst they will most likely never reach a major tournament, friendlies like the Latvia fixture will give the side good competition and reasonable fixtures. Gibraltar will face Macedonia, Armenia and Liechtenstein in the UEFA Nations League which starts later this year.

So let’s all hope that for a territory famous for a rock and monkeys, the national football team can start making its people even prouder to be Gibraltarian.

Jack Douglas

Sources:

Daily Record: Lincoln Red Imps v Celtic RECAP: Take a look back as Hoops lose to minnows in Champions League qualifier. 12th July 2016.

Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation: Gibraltar v Latvia – Post Match Interview with Liam Walker. 25th March 2018.

What qualifying for a World Cup means to Panama

The incredible story of how Panama’s football team qualified for their first major tournament.

Jack Douglas

The incredible story of how Panama’s football team qualified for their first major tournament.

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Passion @BelTel_Sport

On December 20th 1989, the US launched a full military invasion of Panama. Estimates believe Operation Just Cause resulted in the loss of up to 7000 Panamanians and ended with the deposing of Military Dictator Manuel Noriega.

Known by many for military coups, narcotics, and a canal; Panama has often made the headlines in quite a derogatory fashion. Noriega’s Dignity Battalions acted like storm-troopers; a combatant militia that stood in the way of any attacks from both domestic and overseas opposition.

Luis Ovalle, Fidel Escobar, Roman Torres, Adolfo Machado and Jaime Penedo now form the Panamanian Football Team’s own Dignity Battalion; the last line of defence from any foreign threats.

With the odds stacked against them, Los Canaleros lined up against Costa Rica in October knowing only a victory and a US slip up in Trinidad would grant them their ticket to Russia. Panama’s dream looked left in tatters as Johan Vanegas put the Costa Ricans one up.

But for a country synonymous with conflict and fight, giving up was never an option. With the US enduring a nightmare in Trinidad, Gabriel Torres drew the hosts level with a goal marred in controversy, before namesake Roman Torres netted an 87th minute winner to send the 4 million population of Panama into dreamland.

Gabriel Torres’ equaliser came after a goal-line scramble, and the ball didn’t appear to cross the line. But with Russia confirmed for the Reds, fans and players alike won’t have lost any sleep over the ghost goal.

President Juan Carlos Varela tweeted: “You deserve it… Viva Panama!” A national holiday was subsequently called, allowing fans of a once war-torn nation to celebrate something miraculous that everyone had worked so hard to achieve.

After America’s invasion of Panama, a sense of irony prevailed when the plucky little nation got their own back against the States, crushing the dreams of wonderkid Christian Pulisic and co.

For a Baseball playing nation, reaching a football world cup was only a dream for many. The Liga Panameña de Fútbol is the top tier of the Panamanian football pyramid. To give some context to the size of the game in the country, current champions and most successful club C.D. Árabe Unido play their home games at Estadio Armando Dely Valdés in front of a capacity of 4,000 people.

Panama line up against England in Group G, alongside Belgium and Tunisia. Whilst Panama’s champions perform for 4,000, our champions, Chelsea, play in front of 41,000 at Stamford Bridge, and are broadcast to millions across the globe.

The man that scored the historic goal for his country Roman Torres summed up what qualification meant to his team and country, saying they are: “Extremely happy, just thankful to god for the things that happened and we are really happy to be going to the world cup.

“Pure happiness, the Panamanians are so blessed with what happened, it’s something we’ve been working to for some time. I can’t say it enough, the stadium was just in pure happiness and euphoria over what happened. It was a historic moment for our country.”

A photo circulated that showed Torres, a pitch-invader and a police officer embracing one another following the full time whistle. The sheer delight inside the stadium was sensational, says Torres:

“When the moment arrived, if the fans are going to come, they are going to come. The Panamanians felt the moment, they are part of the moment. What are you going to do? You can’t stop them entering the field in such a moment, not only for the people of Panama City and Panama, but for the national team also. You can’t stop them coming and celebrating such a historic moment.”

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The crowd erupted ©AP – Mail Online Website

Fifa’s 56th ranked team are managed by Colombian Hernán Darío Gómez. El Bolillo (The Truncheon) managed Ecuador side to their first World Cup in 2002, four years after his Colombian side bowed out of the ’98 finals in the group stages. In an interview with Fox Sports, El Bolillo said that his team are going to face powerhouses like Belgium and England, before adding: “We’re going to face these tough guys, and they’re going to be happy about it.”

In football though, as England fans know all too well, the underdogs often spring up surprises.

The country’s all-time leading scorer Blas Perez has netted 43 goals for Los Canaleros. Perez has enjoyed successful spells in Uruguay, Colombia, America and Mexico, with brief stints in Spain and the UAE. The cult-hero figure celebrated reaching the world cup with a tweet dedicated to his countrymen, which read: “Our greatest satisfaction was to fulfil the dream of a nation. See you in Russia my people!”

The common consensus surrounding Panamanian football and the successes of the national team seem to be one of togetherness and camaraderie, with the people of the nation being just as pivotal and important as the eleven on the field.

Two Panamanian commentators were seen screaming, crying and jumping into each other’s arms as the full time whistle went against Costa Rica. Their neighbours had inflicted Panama’s heaviest ever defeat in 1938, 11-0, so victory for Panama over their rivals made qualification even sweeter.

With an average income of $13,654, Panamanian’s are looking at an estimated cost of €3,228 ($3,969) for the trip to Russia according to The World Game. But for a nation who are finally starting to get behind the beautiful game, thousands of supporters are expected to make the journey.

Panama’s motto of ‘For the Benefit of the World’ seems more apt than ever now as the tiny nation gets to show itself off on the biggest stage of all. Let’s hope that the nation, known by many for US military intervention and a de facto dictator, can change the minds of many and help contribute to what is shaping up to be one of the most interesting tournaments to date.

¡Viva Panamá!

Jack Douglas

 

Olympic criminals: What direction is doping taking?

As doping continues to be exposed all around the world, it is showing no signs of slowing up.

Rosie Tudball

As doping continues to be exposed all around the world, it is showing no signs of slowing up.

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Justin Gatlin ©Erik van Leeuwen

“As for the errors I make, the only punishment I acknowledge for having made them is my awareness of those errors, and having to live with it: there is, there should be, no heavier penalty on a person’s soul, mind and heart.”

The words of Lebanese poet Jouma Haddad, are words that can be applied to everyday life and mistakes that we all make. The quote refers deeply to the punishment of guilt, and how a mistake is self-punished through emotion, and alternatively how it can act as a mental deterrent.

Sometimes however, the feeling of guilt is not explicitly evident, as described by psychologist Sigmund Freud. “Unconscious sense of guilt can turn people into criminals.”

When psychology is fused with crime, the level of crime can be assumed as physical, however, on the subject of recurring crimes in sport, the severity can differ. The crime of doping in sport is somewhat overlooked, overlooked in the way that the perpetrator has the capacity to dope multiple times. The common punishment for doping is a suspension, resulting in the athlete returning to the track later in life. The aim of a punishment is to reform with the expectation that a crime won’t be committed again, we know in sport, particularly athletics, this isn’t the case.

Russia as a collective nation has been shunned upon due to the unforgivable actions of a vast number of athletes’ participation in taking performance enhancing drugs. 111 Russian athletes were dismissed from participating in Rio at the 2016 Olympics, and Russia was banned entirely from competing in the Athletics disciplines. It was a huge wake up call for those within the sport at all levels to fully understand the damage and potential circumstances of cheating with drugs. Russia were recently reinstated of their Olympic ban.

The decision fuelled conflict however, as 2 Russian participators at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics were called out for doping – a lesson not wholeheartedly learnt.

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Figure 1: Map showing frequent doping nations ©Esri UK

Despite Russia’s lack of cohesion in competing clean, they aren’t the only nation to have been in the spotlight for doping. In 2013, Esri UK released an image showing the world’s biggest culprits of doping (image presented above). The results were shocking, and highlighted the realisation that doping is a widespread, serious issue for amateur and professional sport. Evidence collected by a BBC State of Sport investigation found that 49% of amateur sports people revealed their thoughts that performance enhancing drugs were easily available. A shocking and slightly terrifying statistic. The issue is everywhere, however in track and field, far west from Russia, the United States are not out of the limelight when it comes to doping. American athlete Justin Gatlin riled up spectators and competitors when he won the World Championships 100m last year. Gatlin has served two suspensions away from competing on track for two separate occasions of doping. The American has been side-lined for a total of 8 years of his career due to doping, hence the uproar following his win last year on the world stage.

Many questions have been raised surrounding Gatlin, and many others, the majority being why he is allowed to compete. The answer to these questions is of course that he has served his time and has had to face the repercussions of being caught doping with the judgement of the public eye. The questions should really focus upon how the issue of doping is tackled, as evident, the issue has adopted a recurring nature, which only sparks fear in the sport as suspicion is at its highest.

The future looks worrying for athletes, primarily for clean athletes who now not only face the physical and emotional strain of competing at a high level, but also competing against a colony of ‘super-human’ substance fuelled athletes. There have been numerous reports stating that athletes that choose to dope can provide a clear doping test – a disturbing prospect. Sport is a celebration of talent and teamwork, and at high level, an opportunity to put the world’s most elite on a pedestal to commend their hard work and innate ability, morals and practices that could be jeopardised should the issue of doping escalate.

The prospect of doping in sport has been evident for thousands of years, dating back to the earliest Olympic Games – estimated to have taken place at 776BC. It was speculated through study that Greeks would drink potions, take opium, hallucinogens and engage in practices such as game-fixing to their advantage. When considering the roots of sport, the ancient Greek Olympics set the bar for mega sporting events, birthing the Games as the spectacle it is today.

It’s in the history and roots of the Olympics to partake in doping, and despite efforts to keep sports clean, it’s proving to be a never-ending uphill battle to combat. There is suspicion surrounding the games, especially when revising the bans given to respective athletes.

 

Despite doping numerous times, Justin Gatlin has been cleared to compete, however British athlete Dwain Chambers was caught doping in 2003 and handed an immediate lifetime Olympic ban. Questions surround how some doping crime associated with certain athletes is swept under the rug, perhaps to stimulate competition and retain the drama, especially on the track.

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Dwain Chambers after his comeback ©Erik van Leeuwen

Jamaican favourite Yohan Blake was banned for 3 months for testing positive for stimulants, a story that gained little media attention in comparison to his stature in the sport. Blake is an essential member of the world record holding Jamaican 4x100m relay team and the training partner of Usain Bolt, there’s little surprise that his ban was kept relatively behind closed doors. Bolt, and the Jamaican relay team were widely celebrated and loved all over the globe, mainly for their clean track record and of course their mesmerising talent. It would be a huge upset to athletics in general should any of the team get caught doping, a suspected reason as to why spirit dampening bans such as Blake’s are quietened.

Russia are taking the brunt for their doping activities, which is fair due to the magnitude to the doping. It is however, becoming a slight epidemic that nations turn a blind eye to their own issues in cheating, especially as Russia are currently taking up the entire lens of the doping microscope.

The future of sport is forecast a doping crisis, as technology improves, and camps are finding ways to dope without evidence. The presence of spontaneous drug tests was thought to have added some intimidation to athletes and their teams, but such methods cannot work forever. The future of fair games is up in the air, only time will tell if improvements can be made to reduce and abolish cheating behaviours in sport.

Rosie Tudball

Why are there no athletes with intellectual disabilities in Pyeongchang?

The winter Paralympics continues to amaze with extraordinary feats. It is now time for people with Intellectual disabilities to take part.

Tom Weir

The winter Paralympics continues to amaze with extraordinary feats. It is now time for people with Intellectual disabilities to take part.

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The Winter Paralympics will, for all those watching around the world, continue to push the expectations of what we deem humanly possible. Such is the level of performance on show, the caveat of “for the disabled” or “for people with impairments” isn’t required in the previous sentence. We are fortunately past the time when the simple act of people with varying impairments playing sport was sufficient to garner praise, or even worse, have platitudes thrown around such as “how fantastically brave.” Elite disability sport is now admired against a generalised yardstick of excellence, and is not found wanting. Attitudes and rights for people with disabilities have changed hugely over the last 30 years; feats of athleticism, I would argue, have been a vital part of the reason why.

That sport has the power to change minds and perception of impairment is now openly acknowledged by disability sport organisations. The British Paralympic Association today use the nomenclature of being “a movement,” and openly discuss their intention to use large scale events as a battering ram to advance public perception of people with impairment, through the increasing visibility and excellence of world class sport. This drive for increasingly higher levels has been criticised in some quarters for excluding many of the more severely impaired athletes, alienating the wider disability community, and not providing enough grassroots opportunities. (These problems are often bundled together in the idea of the ‘Paralympic Paradox.’) These not inconsiderable criticisms aside, the fact remains that the Paralympic Games now are a highly visible force changing perceptions of disability. This has occurred however only for those allowed within the tent; namely those with a definable and classifiable physical impairment. Amongst the athletes competing at Pyeongchang there is still no place for those with an Intellectual Disability (ID). It requires a quick delve into history to explain why.

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London 2012 Paralympic Games ©Thomas Davies

From 1948-1976 the Paralympic Games (the the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’) were purely for people with spinal cord injury; owing largely to the domineering figure of their founder Sir Ludwig Guttmann. ID was first part of the Winter Paralympics in 1992; with demonstration events in cross country and alpine skiing. The Barcelona summer games did not include ID athletes, instead a special event for ID athletes was held in Madrid, and at a price, also afforded the Paralympic name tag. Biathlon was added as a further demonstration event in 1994; before Atlanta 1996 and Nagano 1998 saw full medal involvement in a limited number of events. However in 2000, following a cheating scandal where it was revealed the Spanish basketball team had knowingly cheated the classification system in order to win gold, ID athletes were expelled wholesale as an impairment category. Dr Bob Price, head of the British Paralympic Association at the time, described it as an incredibly reluctant move, but unavoidable as the classification system was simply not robust enough. Re-admission was not to come until London 2012, following extensive work to improve the classification system, a crucial part of which is the requirement to quantify that there is a sport specific impact of the impairment, not just the presence of an impairment generally. Athletes with ID have then returned to the Summer Games; but in only 3 of the 21 sports (athletics, swimming and table tennis) in small numbers, and have yet to re-feature in the Winter Games, although it is hoped Cross Country Skiing may be included in 2022.

This exclusion means that ID athletes are missing out on the benefits of the Paralympic Games; for themselves as athletes by not having the highest level to compete at; and for the public perception of Intellectual Disability more generally. That it would be dangerous for ID athletes to compete, or that they would not be capable of the levels of excellence required, can be debunked by the Special Olympics Winter Games which shows that athletes were capable of competing safely, successfully and sufficiently swiftly. (The 2013 Special Olympic World Games incidentally was held in Pyeongchang.) Whilst the Special Olympics have a high profile, especially in America, they are fundamental different in ethos. Their focus on wider inclusion, to some observers, comes at the expense of the ability to significantly change perceptions on disability. And despite both being part of the ‘Olympic Family,’ Special Olympics and Paralympics have shown a reluctance to work together, understandable particularly on the part of Special Olympics, who would not wish to potentially lose their top athletes to other competition. So will ID athletes ever be a full part of the Paralympic games?

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2015 Special Olympics Opening Ceremony ©Eric Garcetti

Enter INAS-FID (The International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability) the most important sport organisation most people have never heard of, who since 1986 have been organising elite competition for athletes with Intellectual Disability. INAS has been integral at developing the eligibility and classification system for ID athletes, and pushed for inclusion in the Paralympics. It was INAS that organised the Madrid 1992 games that were to be so important for the initial inclusion of ID athletes. Following the exclusion of 2000 it was the work of INAS (with considerable support from the IPC) that established sufficiently robust classification systems to allow re-inclusion in 2012. Whilst only athletics, swimming and table tennis are currently in the summer Paralympic Games, the 2019 INAS World Games in Brisbane will showcase a greater number of sports, some of which are prime candidates for inclusion in Tokyo 2020, Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028. As for the winter sports, that the 11th INAS World Alpine and Nordic Skiing Championship have been held in February 2018 in Zakopane, Poland strongly indicates cross country skiing is ready for inclusion.

An invitation to the top table of disability sport really matters; for every athlete with a medal round their neck it is another blow to negative perceptions of people with Intellectual Disabilities. Come the Games of Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 it can be expected that more athletes with ID will be on the Paralympic podium; and the eyes of the world will fall, however briefly, on just how physically able athletes with Intellectual Disability can be.

Further reading:

For more on the issues around classification of ID athletes: Burns, Jan. “The Impact of Intellectual Disabilities on Elite Sports Performance.” International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 8, no. 1 (2015).
Brittain, Ian. The Paralympic Games Explained: Second Edition. Oxon: Routledge, 2016.

Tom Weir

Why cricket is so important for Afghanistan

World Cups, IPL players and the introduction of Test Cricket. The amazing story of a war-torn nation changing the face of sport.

Liam Moore

World Cups, IPL players and the introduction of Test Cricket. The amazing story of a war-torn nation changing the face of sport.

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© By Spc. Michael Germundson

You would be excused if the initial thought of Afghanistan that entered your mind would be war. It could even be conflict, violence or corruption. Thankfully, the nation’s cricket team is changing that perception as they continue to rise to the highest level of the sport.

Many children dream of playing for their country; returning to their safe neighbourhood and having the leisure of watching live cricket throughout the year. For Afghans, this way of life is simply non-existent. Since the 1970’s, Afghanistan have been plagued with war. In 1979, The Soviet government invaded the country, propping up a communist government. They would occupy the land for ten years before moving on, allowing a civil war to break out.

In 1997, the Taliban were recognised by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as the rulers of the country. The organisation had over two thirds of the nation under their control and enforced hard-line Islamic beliefs. Two years prior to this, two Afghan refugees established the Afghanistan Cricket Federation (AFC) in 1995. Taj Malik and Allah Dad Noori were currently residing just outside of Peshawar, which was a popular northern city in Pakistan that many Afghan refugees settled in.

Unfortunately for the residents of the Asian country, the conflict did not come to a halt. After the terrorist attack that took place on the World Trade Centre in 2001, then president of the United States, George Bush, responded by launching missiles into Afghanistan. What followed would be years of conflict, as both the United States and the United Kingdom deployed troops into the country. Those troops are still present in war-torn Afghanistan, desperately fighting the Taliban – a conflict that has lasted for 17 years. It would appear implausible, amidst all the devastation the country has had to endure, that something sensational was quietly brimming.

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©Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=466186

1999 was a memorable year for the AFC. Stuart Bentham, who was a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club, was present in Afghanistan as he was on a business meeting. At the time, the Afghan national cricket team were training in Kabul. Bentham witnessed the team in action and was inspired to help the nation obtain better cricketing equipment. Once he arrived back in England he persuaded the MCC to donate, further supporting Afghanistan’s cause for international status.

The fall of the Taliban saw a lot of refugees return home which rapidly increased the growth of the sport in the country. In 2003, the ACF held their first trials for the national team. This truly was the start of something special happening to the country as the years that followed would bring much success.

Only 12 years after its establishment, Afghanistan had won its first tournament. The Asian Cricket Council T20 Tournament was an event for the lower ranked nations throughout Asia. Afghanistan were joint winners after their final against Oman finished as a tie. In 2010, Afghanistan recorded their biggest victory of that time after defeating Ireland for a place in the T20 World Cup. They had done it. They finally reached the global stage of cricket. Unfortunately, they didn’t win a single game of the competition. Nevertheless, this was a big stepping stone for the country.

From 2013, the progress the nation made was simply remarkable. Due to consistently good performances, Afghanistan were promoted to associate from affiliate by the International Cricket Committee (ICC). They also qualified for their first 50-over World Cup, beating Scotland to make history for the newly promoted country.

Three years later and Afghanistan were at it again. The 2016 T20 World Cup was hosted by India and Afghanistan won their group, beating all three teams. Their group consisted of Scotland, Hong Kong and Test-playing nation Zimbabwe. For the first time in their history, they had qualified for the second round of an ICC competition. They did not progress further, but they did give England a scare when they reduced them to 57-6 and they beat eventual winners West Indies.

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©Harrias  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11432547

These dates mentioned are imperative to understand the progress Afghanistan have made. However, none of these dates can compete with the event that took place last year. On June the 22nd 2017, the ICC introduced the country as a Test playing nation. For those who are not too fond of cricket – there is no higher status than being a Test playing nation. Many professionals around the world took to social media to congratulate the nation on its incredible progression. They are expected to play their inaugural Test match in 2018 and have become the first admission – along with Ireland – to Test cricket since Bangladesh in 2000, when Afghanistan were only five years old as a cricketing nation.

Despite being surrounded by war or being plagued with violence, Afghanistan have refused to bow out. The Telegraph reported that cricket was so popular in Afghanistan, even the Taliban were playing the sport. Speaking to Tim Wigmore, country captain Mohammad Nabi said: “It brings peace to every tribe”. So, it would appear cricket is beyond a sport for this small Asian country. Cricket has represented itself as an escape for many residents of Afghanistan who have become accustomed to daily violence.

Unfortunately, it is still no simple task for Afghanistan to play cricket. There is still conflict in their country and they are forced to play their ‘home’ games in the Indian city of Noida due to safety concerns. Debatably, there is one man who can epitomise playing professional cricket in Afghanistan better than any other – former New Zealand coach Andy Moles. Moles, who spoke to The Cricket Monthly, coached the team during the 2015 World Cup and his own submission of training allows one to grasp what life is like for Afghan residents:

“Sometimes you hear a boom go off somewhere when coaching in the middle. You see Black Hawk helicopters flying over the ground, going on missions and coming back. It’s Like coaching in a war movie. Actually, it is a very surreal situation because I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel scared when leaving for work in the morning.”

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©Master Sgt. Brian Boisvert https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39405576

The players the nation are nurturing are worth mentioning, too. Rashid Khan, a 19-year-old leg-spinner who is a key figure in the Afghanistan cricket team has completely taken the world by storm. He’s ranked first in the world in both the ICC T20 and One Day International (ODI) bowling rankings. The incredibly skilled youngster has already taken 86 wickets in ODI cricket. He is a role-model for young cricket fans in Afghanistan. They have someone to look up to, someone who they would like to emulate one day.

Afghanistan have been welcomed into an elite set of cricket nations and continue to rise. The accomplishments of those involved will always be remembered for bringing joy to a country that has suffered for far too .

Liam Moore