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Rugby heroes overcome trying times

By SUN XIAOCHEN in Hangzhou | China Daily | Updated: 2023-09-26 07:38
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An Afghanistan player tries to shake off a tackle during an Asian Games rugby sevens match against China on Sunday. [Photo/Xinhua]

Afghanistan sevens team's determination to succeed despite difficulties back home delivers uplifting subplot

Five brothers, their love of rugby and a strong sense of pride in representing their war-torn native country. It's arguably the most captivating story of the men's rugby sevens tournament at the 19th Asian Games, barring the eagerly anticipated gold-medal tussle between Japan and defending champion Hong Kong, China.

The Afghanistan sevens team — built around the Slaimankhel brothers: Sabir, Bilal, Omar, Sayear and Zakir — has defied long odds to make its second Asian Games, offering an escape from the hardships faced by the sport's growing fan base back home.

After opening its Asiad campaign with a 52-0 loss to host China, the Afghan squad dug deep to produce an improved performance in a 31-5 defeat to the United Arab Emirates, before ending Day 1 on a high with a 41-0 victory over Nepal.

It wasn't enough to reach the knockout stage, but the team can certainly be proud of showcasing Afghanis' passion for rugby amid significant challenges at home.

"We all know sport brings smiles to everyone. You can see the crowd, how happy they are watching the game, and you can see the players enjoy it. That's why we play the game," team captain and coach Omar Slaimankhel said on Sunday after the defeat to China at Hangzhou Normal University Cangqian Athletics Field.

"Afghanistan has been through a lot of hardship over the last 40 or 50 years. So for us to be able to bring the nation together and try to get these little kids to play sport and one day aspire to play against these big Asian teams, we couldn't ask for anything more," Omar added emotionally.

With a final classification game to play on Tuesday, the Slaimankhel brothers — born in Afghanistan before migrating to New Zealand in 1994 sponsored by their late uncle — were attempting to earn the underfunded team a higher finish in Hangzhou than the ninth place it managed in Jakarta five years ago.

The exposure and quality drills at the Asian Games could be key to the sevens program's survival in Afghanistan, where the lack of security, facilities and government funding as a result of war have taken a heavy toll in almost every sport, according to Omar.

No-shows by the Afghanistan men's soccer and cricket teams in Hangzhou highlight the struggles sports face in the country. The men's soccer team was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to financial difficulties, while the country's celebrated men's cricket squad, a back-to-back silver medal-winning team at the 2010 and 2014 Asiad, has not arrived in the Zhejiang provincial capital either — although their withdrawal has not been officially confirmed.

The Slaimankhel family delved into their own pockets to cover the team's expenses, totaling $20,000, to compete in last year's Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy in Jakarta, where it finished second. While the 11 other teams at that tournament had 14 players, Afghanistan only had nine, with no physiotherapist, and often no reserves on the bench.

The situation hasn't improved much this time in Hangzhou.

"That obviously is a little bit costly as well," said Omar. "So you need that sponsorship, you need a country to back you up and we all know how hard that part is, especially getting the team together.

"We have a few players in every province and they try to train themselves at a park if they can find one. Then slowly we try to invite them to one tournament and it's pretty hard to get enough training together that we need.

"But for us, like I said to a couple of the guys, we're just all heart. We are just going to try and push them right toward the end."

The runner-up finish in Jakarta last year cemented the brothers' faith in growing the sport they fell in love with in their adopted country.

After resettling in Auckland in the 1990s, the Slaimankhels quickly realized that the quickest way to integrate into Kiwi society would be via rugby union, New Zealand's unofficial national sport. The more accessible seven-a-side format offered them a fast-track into the game.

"Growing up in Auckland, New Zealand, in their culture they love rugby, it's just in their blood ... we were in schools that gave us the privilege to play this sport," said Zakir, the youngest brother and the team's top try scorer at last year's Trophy tournament.

After developing their game and physicality in New Zealand and completing a few successful stints between them in the pro ranks, the Slaimankhel brothers decided to rectify their native country's absence from the sport's Asian championships.

And so the Afghan national sevens program was born, with the team making its presence felt in its international debut at Jakarta 2018.

The inspirational story caught the attention of the All Blacks sevens team, with their World Cup-winning captain Scott Curry sending the Afghan players boxes of new cleats upon their return to Auckland from the Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy.

"We're always trying to find ways to help our people, our community, and I just saw the love for the game that they have, and I just figured I'd reach out to them," Curry told SBS News.

No matter where the team eventually finishes this time, the Hangzhou trip has been more than worthwhile, according to Omar.

"We just want to show our appreciation for all the support and love given to us from the Afghan people and hopefully we can keep making them proud," he said.

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