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Football tackles conflict on the front lines

FC Shakhtar's Darijo Srna celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2015-16 UEFA Europa League Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Shakhtar Donetsk have played Europa League games in Lviv in western Ukraine

Football fans globally will have been caught up in the excitement of a new Premier League season in England, but in other leagues more than mere money and glory are at stake.

These are competitions in conflict-affected parts of the world, where playing football can be a life-threatening risk, and where continuing to take part and play makes a powerful statement.

For example, Manchester United's Europa League clash later this season against Ukrainian club Zorya Luhansk is set to be moved 560 miles across the country to Odessa on safety grounds.

The club has been unable to play in their home city of Luhansk for more than two years.

The Ukrainian side came fourth in their league last season. However, Luhansk and its surrounding areas have been embroiled in conflict since 2014, when Russia took control of the Crimean peninsula of southern Ukraine.

In the ensuing turmoil, three teams in Crimea were absorbed into the Russian league system, and the Shakhtar and Olympik clubs from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine were forced to relocate to Kiev because of the same conflict.

Despite that, Shakhtar currently leads the 12-team league.

'Blood, sweat and tears'

However, even those Ukrainian difficulties seem relatively manageable compared with the dangers of holding football competitions in Afghanistan and Syria.

In Afghanistan, the fifth professional football season got under way last week. Since its creation in 2012, the Afghan Premier League (APL) has gained a toehold in the country, despite organisers saying the national security situation has worsened in that time.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The fifth season of the APL had just kicked off

"It has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to still be where we are today," the league's co-founder Chris McDonald tells the BBC News website. "It has been a hard five years, but it has been great at the same time.

"Football is becoming a passion here, it brings a lot of joy and happiness, and is something that we are going to keep doing."

The league has added an extra sponsor for this season, while the Japanese government has provided cash for floodlighting to be in place for the first time next season.

'Volatile'

Organisers say that on the playing front there is now more parity between the APL teams, as standards have risen with new football coaches from Tajikstan coming in.

Socially, McDonald says that football is keeping young men away from potential pitfalls such as extremism or drugs. Footballers have also been used in the interests of democracy, by encouraging people to vote in elections.

Image copyright Afghan Premier League
Image caption There are eight teams taking part in the Afghan Premier League

However, there are also challenges facing the league's organisers. The elected government is based in Kabul but the Taliban has strongholds in much of the south, east and west.

"When the league started out the security situation was better," admits the American, a former pro basketball player. "The security situation is more volatile now than when we started out, with the Taliban a very significant presence in a number of provinces."

He says this volatility may have stopped other businesses from coming forward to back the league.


Afghan Football League

  • The 18-match championship takes place between August and October
  • Eight teams play in groups followed by semi-finals and finals
  • It is too hot to play in the summer months, and daylight begins to decrease in October
  • Admission is roughly equivalent to 50 US cents (37p) with VIP seats costing $1.50
  • De Spinghar Bazan are reigning champions. Shaheen Asmayee are the most successful, winning in 2013 and 2014
  • The country's leading telecoms provider Roshnan was co-founder of the league and title sponsor since inception

Central control

Each Afghan team is created through a series of regional tournaments (known as the 2016 RAPL Green Field, or Maidan-e-Sabz) across eight regions of Afghanistan, to recruit the best young talent in the country.

All training sessions and matches take place at Kabul's AFF Stadium and Ghazi Stadium. The league action is compressed into a short time frame to make it more more financially and logistically viable.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There are regional competitions to recruit the best young footballers

"All the teams are centrally controlled by the league," says Mr McDonald. "It helps us with logistics and keeping up playing standards. We may at some stage in the future consider individual or company ownership of clubs, but we do not have any plans for that at the moment."

The league is funded through its central sponsorship, with a small amount of revenues coming through gate money, while the Afghan FA also agrees to make up any funding shortfall.

Floodlights should hopefully boost interest next season, with the ability to sell the game to a prime-time TV audience.

Ownership mystery

James Montague has visited another war-torn country, Syria, to report on football there, and has written a book When Friday Comes, about football in the Middle East.

"You often find in conflict zones that they will cut the league down into manageable sizes," he says.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Syrian League games take place in the capital Damascus

"This is what happened in Egypt, and they have that at the moment in the Syrian league. In the Middle East football is also a winter game, but they have a much shorter season than in Europe.

"Amazingly the league in Syria has still been going on," he adds. "What is really interesting is that historically all the big institutions had teams, and traditionally the army team, Al Jaish, was dominant."

He says that in 2008 the Syrian FA felt it should take on the power of the army, as it kept conscripting all the best young players in the country to get them in their team.

As a result Al Jaish had been completely dominant, competing in the Asian Champions League.

The Syrian FA then decided to privatise football, wanting to monetise the game, and attract increased revenues and TV rights.

"They actually allowed private businessmen to come in and buy teams," he says. "But it is very difficult to find out who owns the clubs at present."

'Enduring strength'

As in Afghanistan, the entire league is now played in one city, Damascus, which Montague says remains relatively safe for hosting a football competition.

Teams taking part have represented clubs from Damascus and also from Homs, Aleppo, Hama, Latakia, Hasakah, Quamishli and Jableh, with Al Jaish again re-established as the leading team.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Admission fees to Syrian football matches are "negligible"

Al Jaish were crowned champions on the last game of the season this summer. For rivals Al Wahda (another team from Damascus) to have won, they needed to beat Al Shorta (the police team) and Al Jaish had to lose to Al Karama.

But Al Jaish won, and will once again enter the preliminary round of the Asian Champions League next season.

Whereas before, big games could attract gates of 50,000, now they might only attract a few hundred people. Admission fees are "negligible", says Montague.

"Playing football in Syria has been incredibly dangerous because of the patchwork of differently controlled areas. Several players have been attacked, some have lost their lives and others have been badly injured," he says.

"It also shows the enduring strength of football that league competition still carries on."