Afghan players, while passionate about rugby, held diverse professions, from construction workers to drivers. Without official sponsorship, they self-funded their trip to Hangzhou, arriving just five days before their matches.
HANGZHOU, Sept. 26 (Xinhua) -- As Afghanistan's rugby sevens team took on their opponents in the Asiad arena, they appeared outmatched, watching the scoreboard soar to a daunting 52-0 in just 16 minutes.
But for the 12-member squad, merely stepping onto the court at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, the capital of China's Zhejiang Province, was a victory in itself.
"You can see the players. They enjoyed it. That's why we play this game," captain Omar Slaimankhel told Xinhua.
"Afghanistan has been through a lot of hardship over the past 40, 50 years. So for us to be able to bring a nation together, and try to get these little kids to be able to play sports one day, to play against these big Asian teams, we couldn't ask for anything more," he said emotionally after the match with China.
The 31-year-old's passion for rugby began in childhood. In 1994, the Slaimankhel family moved to New Zealand. There, in a country obsessed with rugby, Omar and his siblings embraced the sport, playing in their Auckland backyard.
Omar's journey from playing in a junior rugby team to the National Rugby League potentially marked him as the first Afghan to become a professional rugby league player.
His older brother, Sabir, introduced him to the Afghanistan Rugby Federation and the Slaimankhel brothers joined the Afghan national team in 2012. At that time, the team was limited, with only nine players and minimal resources. Yet, they persisted.
By 2018, they debuted on the global stage at the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. "We came the ninth," Omar recalled, noting significant wins against teams like Pakistan, Indonesia, and the UAE.
In 2022, the Afghanistan team secured second place in the Asia Rugby Championship. "We did really, really well," Omar said.
Their journey wasn't without its tragedies. The beloved uncle of the Slaimankhels and the father of two other players were lost in terror attacks.
Yet, there were moments of hope. Rugby's popularity surged in Afghanistan, leading to the formation of new teams. The national team expanded, even though players, based in various countries, often trained separately, sharing their progress in group chats.
These players, while passionate about rugby, held diverse professions, from construction workers to drivers. Without official sponsorship, they self-funded their trip to Hangzhou, arriving just five days before their matches.
Their commitment went beyond the sport. In various interviews, they've spoken about Afghanistan's challenges and the resilience of its people.
"I think the situation in Afghanistan will improve. Everybody loves sports, so hopefully, it can help play a positive role in Afghanistan," Sabir was once quoted by RugbyAsia247.
Omar echoed this sentiment, expressing hope for his homeland: "Hopefully we can keep making them proud."