Finding a Little Bit of Lost Soul in Kabul

What does sport mean?

You know how, when fever or cold grips the body, you develop a lack of appetite? Food starts tasting bland; coffee tastes like moist cardboard. I have been suffering from something similar.

Around this time last weekend, Manchester United were playing Newcastle United in a league match. Newcastle are amongst the worst defensive sides in the English top-flight. Man United, with a lavish buffet of attacking options, tore through them. The 4-1 scoreline was, as I learnt from multiple reports, kind to Newcastle.

While my favourite football team were thrashing their opponents, I was watching Formula One. The sprint qualifying session for Monza was intense and dramatic, but I never felt tempted enough to switch to the channel showing football.

Even this Wednesday, as United were playing their first Champions' League match of the season, I watched on with an odd detachment. As if I could, again, watch something else or just take a walk outside. In twenty-three years, Manchester United have never meant lesser than they do now.

The main reason for that is their latest hiring: Cristiano Ronaldo. I don’t have as much against Ronaldo the footballer as I do against Ronaldo the person. Honestly, how does one deal with a sexual offender wearing the crest of your team? In a turn of events as bizarre as utterly normal in Big Sport, Ronaldo wasn't even the only sexual offence story in Manchester that week. And yet, the surrounding noise was just an explosion about his return to the most popular team in the most popular football league in the world. The complete silence about allegations of such gravity made the situation all the more disorienting.

You looked around for someone to talk about it, or think of the survivors, but that kind of behaviour does not do well in an amphitheatre owned by oil barons and petrostates.

Ronaldo and Benjamin Mendy are not the first, and won’t be the last, to enjoy the power of influence. Remember Kobe Bryant? When he tragically passed away last year, how many essays and tributes did you see floating around your social timelines? How many of them, do you reckon, addressed or even acknowledged his transgressions?

I partly understand the silence. It is easy to see stars like Ronaldo and Kobe from a distance. For most of us, they will stay beyond the screen. We don’t have to deal with their personal flaws. That flimsy cloak called separate-art-from-the-artist has always been in high demand, never more than today.

But when we make moral silhouettes out of real people, we can’t hold them accountable for their actions. The productisation of sport has fed into the machinery which takes male athletes and turns them into invincible space cadets flying through a pocket of time. They, or their tribe, can do anything they want and it will be glossed over because they have a spacesuit.

Where do we draw the line? At what point do we say, “this does it?”

A moment of that promise came a few months back. As the biggest clubs in Europe were executing a breakaway super league -- a rich man’s club, basically -- fans came out to the streets to protest. It was incredible, the rarest of sights. For once, they refused to be mice to the Pied Pipers of the game. One such Sunday, Manchester United’s fans stormed inside and vandalised their own ground as a middle finger to the club owners - the Glazer family. It ended up postponing the most anticipated league match of their calendar.

The next few matches at Old Trafford were washed in the same sentiment. Posters calling for Glazers to quit the club were peppered across the stands. Ed Woodward, the club’s outgoing Chief Executive Officer, hasn’t attended a home game since that day. If you read the essays in the English press from that week, you will find paeans to the power of an average fan. The Super League was suspended because fans and players took massive offence to the idea of an originally working-class sport becoming an exclusive product.

I couldn’t believe it. Was this really happening? Was 21st-century sportertainment taking a small step back towards purer, simpler times?

All that is now a forgotten adventure. Last weekend, the same Glazer Out posters were replaced by giant cutouts of Cristiano Ronaldo. Former professional players, who, in April, had led the outrage against unregulated influx of money into football, were now tripping over themselves to wax lyrical about this man-made miracle.

“Faced with this insurrection the club offered up Ronaldo in the style of a middle-aged CEO who buys his wife a Tiffany necklace six months after she discovered his texts to his secretary. Take the shiny thing. Don’t think about, you know, the other stuff.” - Barney Ronay in The Guardian

We are the sheep; we are the mice. There are no two ways about it.

Look, I don’t want to come across as a sanctimonious sport tragic. I, like most others, gobble up commodified sport every day. I have literally not known a time when elite sport was not a product made for television. Television airtime is expensive, and sport is the most popular language in the world. I get it. The many things I take for granted while watching, say, a Premier League or a Test match cannot come without the investment. As fans, we have little choice but to follow along.

The sore joint in this situation is the selection of sports I am in this toxic relationship with. Both cricket and football have gone to the point of no return in this journey. Football still has some, albeit fragile, semblance of a level playing ground; international cricket has dropped all pretence.

Over the last few months, barring the two glorious weeks of Tokyo 2020 that is, I have been struggling to follow them with the same fervour as before. Sure, there are the odd times when someone drags me out of the chair and gets me screaming. On most days, though, it all feels a little too curated, too predictable, and too shallow.

This is a difficult spiral to get tangled in, because you start questioning the meaning of sport. Is it as romantic as I make it out to be; or is it a frivolous pastime where narratives and theories are retro-fitted and sold? Worse still, have I been selling myself a half-lie all this time? I mean, those parched throats and tears of joy were sincere, so why does it now feel like an exercise in futility?

Last week, while struggling with this nagging ache and searching for ways to reconcile with the things I love so deeply, I came across the story of an Afghan journalist called Rukhsana.

Back in 1996, Rukhsana was working with Kabul Daily and Hindustan Times, when the Taliban captured and executed the President of Afghanistan. She spent the next four years ghostwriting columns for foreign newspapers about the plight of women in her country. Then, one Sunday in May 2000, she got a legal summon. Someone influential within the Taliban leadership had caught wind of her work and wanted to pass a subtle warning.

In addition, they demanded that she report good things about a cricket tournament they were organising. Winners of this tournament would get to train further in Pakistan. Rukhsana was an unabashed romantic about cricket, and this tournament was more than just a byline for her. It was her way out of hell.

A couple of weeks earlier, I stumbled across another similar story. Khalida Popal is one of the founders of the Afghan women's national football team. She had to leave Afghanistan and her family soon after setting up the team. Powerful men in that country, with or without Taliban presence, did not take kindly to the idea of independent women. Around 2012, there was a bomb blast at the military base where the team was supposed to train. A decision was made. Since that day, members of the team have spent minimum time in their own country. All training and competition is organised elsewhere.

But they were in Kabul when news about the Taliban capturing the country dribbled through to the international press. Khalida went on a gargantuan rescue mission, orchestrating military and logistical support to evacuate every one of them before the new government could get a grip. She became less a mentor and more a commander-in-chief.

At the same time, in England, Rashid Khan was playing a tournament for his latest franchise. Since his debut in 2015, no one has played more T20 cricket or taken more wickets. Whenever, wherever, there is a franchise league, Rashid is amongst the most sought-after. On 15th August, he wore a subdued expression as the captain handed him the ball in a must-win game. He won his team the match -- of course, he did -- before returning to the turbulence of a man with his family trapped inside Taliban-captured territory.

The continuous growth and success of the Afghanistan men’s team has been the most endearing story to come out of cricket over the last decade. They have quickly become universal favourites for their flair and skill. Franchise owners pull all kinds of strings to fly them over for their teams. Rukhsana and Khalida don’t enjoy the same privilege. Their love for sport is as pure as anyone else’s, and yet, they have to walk through a minefield every day.

There is, to be honest, a slight difference between their stories. Rukhsana is the protagonist of a fictional novel called Taliban Cricket Club; Khalida is a living, breathing hero. That said, their experiences share more similarities than differences. Khalida’s interviews mirror what Rukhsana went through while navigating life as a reporter in a country where women are not always afforded basic dignity. So if you get the book, treat it as a documentary rather than a movie.

Soon after I finished reading, it struck me that much of what I currently feel about sport, in general, can be portrayed through how I feel about these stories.

Firstly, the experiences of women living under Taliban or similarly suppressive governments are unique. I understand the perverseness of this thought -- that I should find comfort in the stories of these Afghan women. Rukhsana’s journey, as I’m sure Khalida’s too, traverses many dark alleys, some so uncomfortable that you squint for the faintest ray of light. Stepping out to meet a friend and returning home without getting questioned by the police is a luxury in their world.

Secondly, I enjoyed how much sport can mean in such circumstances. I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, but cricket is shown as raw, emotional, and powerful. Every run, every wicket, carries a lot of weight. Sport, inside those pages, has the kind of energy that turns fans into romantics.

I realise the absurdity of wishing for an industry like elite sport to become some pure exercise of everything pure about humanity. Industrialisation changes requirements. The product needs to, always, sacrifice purity for marketability. My worry is that we may have come too far. Over time, like that ship in Ship of Theseus, all that will remain is the idea. Everything else will have changed.

Until such a day comes, stories like that of Rashid and Rukhsana and Khalida will remind me that there are parts of the world where unadulterated love for sport is enough to change lives. It is comforting to know that kicking a ball can mean something in itself. Because, right now, the highest level of sport can be a little soulless.