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Afghanistan league points the way for football development

Afghanistan's fledgling soccer league started out with a reality show, has turned into one soccer's unlikeliest success stories and is now considered a model for football development elsewhere

Reuters, Friday 22 Mar 2013

Inaugurated last year, the Afghan Premier League featured eight teams from different regions, whose players were chosen from a reality show called Maidan-e-Sabz (Green Field).

Their ability was tested in a number of challenges, including one that involved running through mud and water, with the victors winning places in their local squad.

Although a far cry from a conventional European-style league, it was broadcast live on television and radio and matches were played in front of a full house.

"It is remarkable," Thierry Regenass, development director at soccer's governing body FIFA, told a round table of reporters from international news agencies.

"It is a huge success on TV, the investors are happy, the clubs and players get money from this league and you have football played in Afghanistan."

Regenass said there had been equally unlikely success stories in Mauritania, Ethiopia, Somalia and American Samoa.

"I'm sure nobody has heard of the league in Mauritania," he said. "But there's new management, a dynamic young guy with lots of ideas who wanted to revive the league.

"He needed to show images of television and so with our performance programme, we helped him set up a TV studio where they can produce a weekly one-hour programme on football which is shown on national television.

"We'll see at the end of the project if it works or not, but we certainly want it to work because that's the way to try and do it."

Unwanted headlines

Regenass said that development of football was the main reason for the existence of FIFA, which is usually associated with the World Cup and had attracted unwanted headlines for a series of corruption scandals over the last three years.

"FIFA is famous for making a lot of money with the World Cup, but FIFA doesn't make money just for the sake of it, FIFA makes money to invest in football either through competition or through development programmes," said Regenass.

"Over the last 15 years, while the revenue of FIFA has increased tenfold, the money invested in football development has increased by 50 times, so the more money FIFA makes in the future, the more will be invested in football development."

FIFA has faced criticism that some programmes have been used in return for political favours or, in some cases, the money has not gone to its intended destination.

In 2011, FIFA launched a formal investigation after Worawi Makudi, a FIFA executive committee member from Thailand, was accused of spending $860,000 in football development grants for projects on land he personally owns.

FIFA eventually cleared him of any wrongdoing.

"In the end, the problem was solved because the proper property title has been made and we had it verified by independent lawyers," said Regenass.

"We should have been more careful at some point but this has been corrected and I'm certain that we want to avoid any case where the money is not efficiently spent, for the objective it has been decided."

Regenass said that overall, he was satisfied that the money ended up where it was intended.

"I think we can be proud of what we do, although, yes, sometimes it didn't work," he said.

"There are a few other places where projects are not what they should have been but, over the 209 countries, in the overwhelming majority the result and the impact has been positive.

"We cannot control everything in 209 countries and territories and we need to rely on the local process, we make sure that MAs (member associations) themselves have the processes in place to verify accounts and be transparent.

"I have been at FIFA for four-and-a-half years and it's been my objective to keep the development work and people non political," he said.

"If you look at the current setup, I think it's pretty apolitical, although it can still be improved."

Talent drain

Development programmes were initially aimed at providing member associations with a headquarters and state-of-the-art training centres for the national teams.

But Regenass said that one of FIFA's new priorities was to strengthen domestic leagues, reducing the necessity for players to move abroad to make a living and stopped the talent drain to Europe's biggest clubs.

"It is still a long-term objective of FIFA, not only in Africa, that countries have a league that is a high enough standard to offer them a proper job and place to play football," he said.

"We also want them the leagues to attract the public so they are not only watching the English Premier League or La Liga on television, but they also have a product they can watch at home.

"We want to work more and more on strengthening local leagues in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.

"For every one player who succeeds in Europe, there are 10 who don't make it. Sometimes they end up elsewhere. There are some really bad leagues in Asia, I don't want to name names here, but it happens, and the players are not taken care of.

"They would be better in their own country provided there was a league which can sustain them."

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