If you’ve ever donated to a cause, you probably entered your credit card information, clicked donate, maybe collected the relevant numbers for your tax write-off, and then never thought of it again. Many times, that’s totally fair; the cause is a one-off, an emergency expense that needs to be covered. But in the case of the Afghanistan Women’s National Team, who partially rely on donations in order to fund their training, they need more than one-offs.
That means a constant grind, always asking for more donations, more sponsors, more networking. In an interview in Houston the night before the National Women’s Soccer League final, Afghanistan’s goalkeeper coach Haley Carter called it “really exhausting.”
“I’m not a fundraiser by trade, and I’m not a marketing person by trade,” she said. “I can talk business and I can talk budgets and spending and financial transparency…but I think trying to sell the program – we’re finally in a place though where we can demonstrate the legitimacy of what we’re doing and the project and all that stuff, but I think trying to keep people interested in the political climate I think we’re in in the United States is a little bit difficult. But there are a lot of families out there and companies out there that really care about empowering women and doing things for women. These women are refugees and there are a lot of causes out there aimed towards refugees so trying to target those is kind of our main priority.”
It’s a constant grind that never really ends. There’s always the next tournament, the next goal. If the team makes progress, that just means they have to raise even more money in order to get to the next stepping stone. But Afghanistan are making progress, showing the dividends of that fundraising.
The team did an initial drive earlier this year, putting together the funds to get everyone together for training in the Bay Area and to play in a small local tournament, while at the same time scouting some new players. They managed to piece together players from Afghanistan, Europe, and North America, along with all their equipment and minimal support staff, and get everything over to the west coast. That camp led to a small tournament in Dublin, California, the Afghanistan Football Support Organization Cup. There were five teams, with the Afghanistan WNT playing three games in group, then advancing directly to finals.
“We kind of used the opportunity to scout and recruit players that we had missed in the first that were not able to make it for some reason to the tournament in May,” said Carter, “Because they had regular club games that weekend. We did find two additional players that we wanted to name to the roster who we had missed in May that were very very good. We had one player score three goals on our team. She was unbelievable, so we brought her in as well.”
Not only did they find some new players, they got results in the tournament as well. “We played against two Afghan club teams and the third team was a team from Salinas, California,” said Carter. “It’s a club team but it’s full of several players that qualify as Mexican as far as their heritage and they were a premiere league team. They were very good.” They beat that Salinas team 2-1 in the group stage, and again 1-0 in the final. Those results mattered, especially to a team that had done badly in their last tournament in 2014.
“Everybody loves to win,” said Carter. “I would say historically being part of a team that has not been winning, I think it gave a lot of the players that have been involved in the program for multiple years confidence that hey, we can do this, we can compete. For the younger players it helps them say this is a serious program, we are serious, we do want to win, we do want to improve. I think across the spectrum, the younger players and the older players, it set the tone up: this is the program. These are our expectations. And we want to produce a winning program. We’re not just getting girls together to play soccer. We want to move this to the next level. Because ultimately when you’re winning, people are going to get behind you.”
It’s harsh but true: without results, supporting a team can feel like an empty cause. Everybody loves a winner but losers tend to fly under the radar. The Afghanistan WNT needs those results, not just for their own mindset, but to show fans and sponsors what they can do if only they have the right backing.
“We talk about nationalism trumping sexism,” said Carter. “When you’re successful, people will get behind you. Our message to the team was if we don’t win SAFF [the South Asian Football Federation tournament], if we don’t perform well, nobody’s going to care. If you don’t go into this tournament and set a tone and send a message to the world that you’re serious, nobody’s going to care about you, nobody’s going to care about the program. And I think they really took that to heart. I think the biggest thing for the players is that those results say hey, we can set these goals, and they are realistic, and we can achieve them if we really set our mind to it and come together as a team.”
SAFF 2016 is the immediate target for the team. In 2014, Afghanistan was last in their group, going 0-0-3 with a -18 goal differential, losing to India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. India blew them out of the water 12-0. Even knowing the context of the team’s minimal funding and the logistical nightmare of trying to practice with a full roster, that kind of result has to sting.
That’s another reason why this tournament result was important. Set a goal: achieve it. That matters when you’re building something, and all the fundraising and the hair pulled over getting the full roster assembled in one place coming from three different continents and actual professional training with professional expectations is paying off. Compared to 2014, Carter thinks the team is “night and day.”
“We’ve got professional staff,” she said. “We’ve been able to bring all of these players from different parts of the world together. We’re making decisions based entirely upon the ability and the talent level of these soccer players and not any other circumstance. So I genuinely think it’s night and day. I think that the support we get from the federation is overwhelmingly positive. I’m hoping we can avoid the ebbs and flows and keep the momentum moving forward so that we grow from here as opposed to, I don’t want us to peak in 2016.”
Carter, head coach Kelly Lindsey, and program director Khalida Popal have short term, medium term, and long term goals. The 2016 goal is to finish in the top three of SAFF.
“Beyond that our biggest objective is to try and set up some international friendlies during FIFA dates in 2017 just so that we can get our FIFA ranking up some,” said Carter. “And just get a little bit more experience. I think the more we can get the team together in a professional training environment, the more we can drive home those principles of this is what’s expected of a professional level soccer player. …ultimately we want the players to have some buy in on that, for the players to have an impact on that.”
The next step after that? World Cup qualifiers. “Will we qualify of World Cup out of AFC?” Carter asked rhetorically. “Probably not. That’s a tough place to come out of. But we want to participate in qualifiers. The Afghan federation to this point, the national team has not competed in a major tournament like that, so that’s our main objective in 2018.”
Teams that Afghanistan might have to get through in order to get an AFC berth in the World Cup? Japan, Australia, South Korea, and China PR, just for starters. Japan is, of course, the former World Cup title holder, and every single one of those teams could put up serious resistance to the United States. Carter is simply being realistic about where the team is in comparison to the rest of the federation; just making an appearance in qualifiers is a good step.
And then after that, Carter hopes the team will be in a regular cycle of competition. “I think consistently competing in major tournaments within AFC,” she said. “I would like to see them break the top 75, top 50 maybe in FIFA rankings, but we’ll see how that goes. Some of the teams, you’ve got India in SAFF, and they can train in their home country. We can’t get all of our players together in Afghanistan, so it’s a little bit of an obstacle. Ultimately we’d like to see us within the top 50.”
They’re starting to get there. They’ve gone from an abysmal showing in 2014 to becoming more competitive and cohesive two years later. “We have some very good forwards that are playing Division I college soccer right now and I think they’re going to spice things up quite a bit up top for us,” said Carter. “I would say that we have a very strong midfield. I’m very happy with that. We have two or three midfielders that are very, very good. They read the game very well. The ability to play the ball through them is awesome. I don’t think that we have the fitness to play a 4-3-3 or anything like that so I think we’re going to hang out in the 4-4-2 for a while until we really learn that system. I liken it almost to a really advanced high school team, like a U18 club team, or maybe a top tier Division II college team.”
Top tier D2 doesn’t sound much like a compliment until you realize the severe drop off in quality outside of the top 20 FIFA-ranked women’s teams, and then again outside of the top 40 or so. India’s women’s team is currently ranked 57, and a good D2 team wouldn’t necessarily win against them, but they’d probably be able to hang in there, and they certainly wouldn’t be getting whooped 12 to nothing. That’s something.
“There’s a lot of potential there, but it’s kind of a different mentality,” said Carter. “So trying to implement tactics and mentality – if we put you in a 4-4-2, this is why, if we put you in a 4-3-3 this is why, so there’s also a lot of education going on as far as tactics are concerned. Many of the teams we played we tried setting up in a 4-5-1 a couple of times and it did us better to play in a 4-4-2. We made some changes on the fly but I think our biggest strength right now is our midfield.”
For now, the grind continues. The federation does what it can, but the team really needs results to get in the news and the general consciousness, and perhaps some more corporate sponsors with deep pockets. Their GoFundMe is also still up and running. They’ve made real concrete strides forward with what they’ve managed to assemble so far and there’s a road map looking at least a cycle into the future. Hopefully, that’s the kind of progress the team can literally take to the bank, to invest in the continued development of this program.