KABUL: Afghanistan is launching its first professional football championship with the ambitious goal of bringing peace to the war-torn country -- and with teams chosen on a groundbreaking reality television show.
Thousands of young Afghans have already applied to take part, with the members of each of the eight teams to be selected on the “Maidan e Sabz” (Green field) programme.
It will be the first Afghan football championship to be broadcast on television. Previous amateur competitions have involved little-known players and failed to capture the public's imagination.
Football-crazy Afghans are more passionate about European competitions, especially Spain's La Liga. Cushions with the emblems of Barcelona and Real Madrid are often seen in the back shelves of cars in Kabul.
“To establish peace and stabilise a country, one must not only focus on training soldiers,” said Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) president Keramuddin Karim as he announced the championship.
“Sport is also a strong base for peace, as it (embodies) values such as unity, integration, pride and prevents racism, drugs and other elements that bring insecurity to the country,” said Karim, who is also governor of Panjshir province.
AFF member Sayed Ali Reza Aghazada said players would be paid but did not offer any further details.
“We are now in a test. This is the first test on that matter. We will draw conclusions at the end of the championship,” he said.
For the reality TV section, 30 players will be selected out of hundreds for each show and put through a series of physical, mental and football tests.
Their performance will be judged by former Afghan national team players and coaches and 21 chosen, with each team's final squad of 18 being decided by the studio audience.
“We are doing it on TV so that people can know the players. They will be famous thanks to the reality show. This will help us to promote football,” said Aghazada.
The tournament, to be played in September and October, will involve pool and knockout stages with matches broadcast on Afghanistan's two main TV channels.
Phone company Roshan, which is sponsoring the event, said it would be a “unifying institution” for Afghanistan, a country made up of different and often conflicting ethnic groups.
Football was one of the rare activities that escaped a ban by the Taliban during their hardline rule from 1996 to 2001.
They took advantage of the sport's popularity and the large numbers of spectators it drew to carry out punishments, using the half-time interval to chop off the hands of thieves on the pitch.
As NATO's 130,000 troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014, Afghanistan is looking to use sport as a means of promoting peace and avoiding further bloodshed.
The country's young cricket team, another symbol of hope, has made great strides internationally and has qualified for this year's World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka.
And all Afghan eyes will be on Rohullah Nikpai during the London Olympics to see if the taekwondo star, who became the country's first Olympic medallist in 2008, can repeat the feat.