Your Title

HONG KONG: Afghanistan begin their first World Cup qualifying campaign since the Taliban’s return to power on Thursday with head coach Abdullah Al-Mutairi (pix) looking to push politics aside and let his team focus on beating Mongolia.

Afghanistan, who have never gone close to securing a place at the World Cup, are hoping to advance to the second round of Asia’s preliminaries for the 2026 finals but Al-Mutairi and his squad face a number of challenges.

Unable to play in front of their own fans due to the security situation in Afghanistan, they are playing the ‘home’ leg in neighbouring Tajikistan before facing Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar in the return match on Tuesday.

“Everyone is thinking all of us are monsters but this is not true,“ the Kuwaiti coach told Reuters of how his team have been perceived since the Taliban returned to power two years ago.

“You cannot judge all of the people because of one or two, or because of the political situation.

“We are only a football team. It’s so difficult but we try our best.”

The tie is one of 10 taking place across the continent featuring the confederation’s lowest-ranked nations, with the victors advancing to the second round group phase which features seeded nations such as Japan and Australia.

The winner of Afghanistan’s playoff will take on 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar as well as India and Al-Mutairi’s native Kuwait, with the top two finishers advancing to the next phase of qualifying.

The third and fourth placed finishers in the group move into a qualifying tournament for the 2027 edition of the continental championship, which will be played in Saudi Arabia.

“Our target is to qualify for the Asian Cup in 2027,“ said Al-Mutairi. “We will try our best now.”

Despite the many challenges Al-Mutairi has faced since taking over as coach in April he said he has been succeeded in blending a cohesive and unified squad comprised of players from both inside and outside Afghanistan.

“We try to show everyone in the team that we have the same pain,“ he said. “We are humans.

“It’s not important about background, your culture, where you sleep, where you are resident, where you play. It is not important.

“The most important is we have the same blood, Afghanistan blood. This you cannot change, even if you have another passport, even if you were born outside and have never been to Afghanistan before. None of this is important.

“What is important is the team plays for the country. Before it was a big problem but now we’ve solved it.” - Reuters