Balls And Bombs – Otto Pfister’s Experience Of Taliban


German football coach, Otto Pfister has trotted the globe. He has worked in four continents and in countries battling wars. He has seen a genocide in Rwanda and a civil war in Congo. He is known in Africa to work in a host of countries, especially Francophone Africa, and with a good level of success too.

Now 83, Pfister recalls his experience in Afghanistan with the Taliban, at the wake of recent developments in the country.

In an interview with Michael Wegmann of BLICK, the octogenarian spoke about how the constant fear of bombs, in a football-loving country, left the people walking in fear.

“I am sad and disappointed (to see that the Taliban is back). I suffer with the people because I wasn’t just a coach in Afghanistan. I was there with my heart. I feel emotionally connected. It’s heavenly sad, the people there are suddenly without a future. Especially the women. But it was foreseeable that the Taliban would come to power. At the latest after the Americans withdrew, it was clear.

“Even then there was war in the country. Tanks and scout vehicles were posted all over the streets of Kabul. The government wanted to be prepared to strike back immediately if the Taliban carried out an attack.”

On his experience with bombs in the country, he said; “Yes. When a bomb went off in the Iraqi consulate, I was lying in my hotel bed a few hundred meters next door. I felt like I flew three feet into the air. It was terrible.”

Despite the trepidation that thronged locals in the country, and the lack of assurance over when the next bomb will go off, Pfister said he hardly worked with fear.

“A queasy feeling, but not afraid. I have to say: the situation in Afghanistan was closest to me. I have worked in 22 countries on four continents. I was in Lebanon when Hezbollah started. I was in the Congo and Rwanda when the war raged. But Afghanistan was the worst for me.”

“This constant fear of the Taliban attacks. I’ve been to Kabul a couple of times. I don’t remember seeing anyone laugh at that time. When I was talking to a woman in the hotel lobby, she said she lived with fear every day. Every morning she doesn’t know whether her husband will return in the evening. The police officer at the airport who had to search my luggage on my last departure from Afghanistan was also impressive. He said to me: “Mr. Pfister, you lucky one. You can leave the country.”

Pfister, who has been to the country just four or five times said he hardly got to work in the country over the constant fear of being attacked.

“Maybe four or five times in total. Once I was in Kabul for two weeks.
Because we were never able to play our home games in Kabul, even though it has a beautiful stadium there. For fear of attacks, we held our training camps in Dubai or Qatar. We played our home games in Tajikistan. Then over 10,000 Afghans drove there for a few hours to watch us play. That was impressive. Afghans love football, their national players are heroes, even though nobody is playing at home anymore. Many are in Sweden, England or Denmark. The goalkeepers even in New Zealand and the USA. They were all flown in. We flew a lot during that time.

The association was sponsored by a multi-billion dollar company from Dubai. They must have also lost the sponsorship.

That (the Afghan women’s team) was supported by the same sponsor. In contrast to the men, the women trained near Kabul.

Football has been banned since the Taliban came into power …
… they introduced Sharia law as a law. Women who play sports are not accepted.

“Many coaches suffer from existential fears!”
Afghan football pioneer Khalida Popal says the former footballers are now in mortal danger. She advises everyone to hide.
The players lived dangerously before that. The base of the Afghan Football Association is a little outside of Kabul and is surrounded by huge walls. The only entrance, a large iron gate, was guarded by the military. For fear of bombs. Inside the walls, there was also a soccer field surrounded by a grid – the women trained there. They fought hard for their rights, for the right to education, to football. Now everything is gone in one fell swoop. It’s just awful.”

Despite the troubles in the country, Pfister has kept tabs with happenings and the state of the people there. He says he speaks “every now and then with some players and staff members. But none of them are currently in Afghanistan. By the way, on Wednesday I was asked whether I would be there for a benefit game for Afghanistan in Frankfurt. I don’t know when it will take place. But I am sure of it. We have to help the Afghans.”

Pfister as Ghana coach.

While he feels he has to help the Afghans, he’s still in doubt as to the capacity that will take.

Pfister has stopped his nomadic coaching career after working in so many countries for many decades. Coincidentally, his last job was the Afghani national team. He says he still feels a part of the game but enjoys the pristinely nature of his current life.

“Indeed. It itches and tingles me every now and then. But right now I’m here. In Switzerland. In paradise, where people get annoyed when the coffee cream is 50 cents more expensive.”

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