Taliban bids on sports in Afghanistan to gain legitimacy at home and abroad

Gulbadin Naib, member of Afghanistan's national cricket team at the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup. Screenshot from the video ”Gulbadin Naib? Morgan? | England vs Afghanistan – Top 5 Moments | ICC Cricket World Cup 2019“ from ICC YouTube channel. Fair use.  

On April 28, the Afghanistan’s men’s national futsal team capped off their run at the AFC Futsal Asian Cup with a win over Kyrgyzstan in the playoffs and earned a spot at the upcoming FIFA Futsal World Cup, which will be held in the fall of 2024 in Uzbekistan. This became an unprecedented achievement in Afghanistan’s sports history. Not only did the national team participate in their first-ever Asian Cup, but they also qualified for the World Cup for the first time.

Here is a post on Instagram with the Afghanistan futsal team's celebrations.

The success of the national futsal team became another major sporting accolade Afghanistan has achieved since the Taliban took over the country in August 2021. At the 2023 Cricket World Cup, Afghanistan's national team went on a historic and ultra-impressive run by beating the defending and former world champions: England, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Before this tournament, Afghanistan had only one cricket World Cup win since it started competing in World Cups in 2015.

Sports in Afghanistan are limited to men. After coming to power, the Taliban has banned women from playing sports as part of the broader discriminatory campaign against women. However, the group’s gross violations of women’s rights have not stopped international sporting bodies from allowing Taliban-sent athletes to take part in competitions. Every appearance and success of athletes sent by the Taliban to major international sporting events is a political win for the Taliban regime, which seeks international recognition and legitimacy at home and abroad.

Sports under different political regimes

Various sports have flourished under different regimes in Afghanistan throughout history. An ancient traditional sport that has stood the test of time is buzkashi, an equestrian sport, which is best defined as a mix of polo and wrestling. It remains popular today and was even featured in the popular Rambo III Hollywood action movie, in which the main character plays buzkashi during his journey in Afghanistan.

The start of conventional sports in Afghanistan dates back to the first half of the 20th century, when the country was a monarchy. Football was one of the sports that experienced a rise in popularity in this period. In 1922, the first national football team was formed, and in 1923, the famous Ghazi Stadium, was built in the capital Kabul. In 1948, Afghanistan joined FIFA.

In 1936, Afghanistan sent a group of 19 athletes to take part in the first summer Olympic games in its history. Since then, the country has sent athletes to 14 summer Olympic games, who have won a total of two bronze medals in taekwondo.

The first Taliban rule over Afghanistan, which lasted from 1996 to 2001, and the preceding decades-long instability changed the sports landscape in the country. Some popular sports such as buzkashi and kite flying were banned by the Taliban, and others such as football and cricket were allowed under the condition that players dress according to Islamic norms and wear pants instead of shorts.

In addition to hosting sporting events, during this period, stadiums were used as arenas for public executions carried out by the Taliban in front of large crowds. Women were banned from all sports, which led to the suspension of Afghanistan’s membership in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1999 and the disqualification from the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

The following 20-year stretch of the Republic of Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021 removed barriers placed by the Taliban and facilitated the emergence of cricket as the most popular sport in the country. Women were allowed to practice sports again, and the first women participated in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.

The refugees from Afghanistan who lived in Pakistan in the 1990s and were exposed to cricket there returned home and popularized the sport in Afghanistan. In 2001, Afghanistan joined the International Cricket Council and, in 2017, became a full fledged member. The national cricket team participated in the 2015 and 2019 Cricket World Cups.

Here is a YouTube video about the growth of cricket in Afghanistan.

Banning women from sports and promoting cricket

The Taliban’s return to power in 2021 brought back the ban on women playing sports in addition to numerous other restrictions forcing women athletes into exile or hiding. The group continues to use stadiums not only for a few selected sports, but also for public executions and floggings as thousands watch.

Due to these severe restrictions on women’s sports and other human rights abuses, women athletes from Afghanistan have called on the IOC to ban Taliban-ruled Afghanistan from the 2024 Paris Olympics. The IOC confirmed that it is in talks with Afghanistan and aims to have a gender-balanced team from the country. Whether it will happen or not remains unclear.

A precedent for a mixed team has been set at the 2023 Asian Olympics, where Afghanistan was represented by an all-men team sent by the Taliban and women athletes from Afghanistan who are currently living in exile in different parts of the world. In the 2024 Paris Olympics, women athletes from Afghanistan who are participating include Manizha Talash and Nigara Shaheen. They will be part of the Refugee Olympic Team, however.

The women athletes who are still in Afghanistan remain in hiding or try to leave for safety, and those who were forced to leave will remain in exile for as long as the Taliban remain in power. Nevertheless, determined women athletes from Afghanistan have continued their steadfast fight for recognition and opportunity. The women’s football team has been playing in Australia while pleading with FIFA to recognize and allow them to represent Afghanistan. FIFA has not accepted the team’s request yet. Over 126 female cyclists continue their cycling journeys in Canada.

Here is a YouTube video about Afghanistan's women national football team currently in exile in Australia.

Similar to the IOC, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has made an exception for Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Cricket Board (ACB) continues to be a full member of the ICC despite not complying with the ICC’s rules and regulations, which requires its full members to set up teams for women’s cricket and develop a framework for their growth and progress. Currently, Afghanistan is the only full member of the ICC lacking a women’s team.

While the ICC remains largely silent, the Taliban continue to pay special attention to the development of cricket by allocating funds and facilitating the opening of private cricket academies. For example, at the 2023 Cricket World Cup, the CEO of Afghanistan’s Cricket Board revealed that the Taliban provided USD 1.2 million when the board faced financial difficulties in 2022. National cricket team players have also been spotted with Taliban leaders, including the group’s Minister of Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani.

The Taliban’s strict ideology has hindered the growth and freedom of sports; nevertheless, the group has also utilized sports as a means to gain recognition. The calculated strategy of the Taliban of promoting specific sports is aimed at projecting a sense of normalcy and asserting their authority.

Supporting and appearing in photos and videos next to cricket players, who are often viewed as national heroes in Afghanistan, helps the Taliban gain legitimacy at home. Sending national teams to international competitions gives them indirect recognition by global sports governing bodies. However the harsh reality is that athletes, especially women, face significant restrictions at home.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.