During a sunny afternoon on the last Thursday in December, the women’s final of the Afghan National Cup was played on a state-of-the-art Sydney football field in front of a rapturous crowd.
The soccer tournament has become an institution for the more than 70,000 members of the Afghan Australian community, serving as a bookend to the year for the past 15 years. This time the cup drew about 650 players representing 34 teams, following qualifiers in major cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide, and spectators from across the country.
But the huge community event was marred by fighting, leading to the cancellation of the entire tournament on the third day after a man threatened to self-harm in protest at an opposing side fielding an unregistered player. Police were called and the event was in disarray after brawls on the field spilled into the car park of the Western Sydney Wanderers’ training grounds.
Organisers scrambled to salvage the final day, getting the Wanderers to agree to host the games of the women’s side, and arranging an ad-hoc finale for the men. Players and spectators who spoke to Guardian Australia supported their decisions, saying the spirit of the event transcended the controversy.
“I think football is a very, very big thing in our community,” says Nilofar Faveqi, captain of Sydney United, which lost the women’s final.
“It’s something that we are very passionate about. And when it comes to things that we are passionate about, we are very vocal as well. Everyone wants to win. Everyone wants to be the best state. They’re passionate about winning. It is what it is.”
It is a common refrain. People care deeply about this cup – more than any other competition, more than anything they watched on TV, more than anything else all year.
“Every team wants to win this, it’s really big among the Afghans,” says Wahid Hamayoun, star player for Azadi, one of the Sydney men’s teams.
“So many people come down, thousands of people. There are people that don’t even play, they travel interstate just to watch.
“If you saw when this tournament first started, they only had 10 teams. Now they need to hold qualifiers in each state, it’s just huge.”
In December, teams come together for a group stage and knockout competition in a chosen host city. This year Sydney organisers partnered with the Wanderers to hold the event at their training facilities.
Teams have to fund their own travel and accommodation, but that doesn’t stop players bringing their friends and family, packing out the stands and making their presence felt during the matches.
The tournament’s approximately 650 players were spread across 26 teams on the men’s side, and eight teams on the women’s side. According to the 2016 census, approximately 70,000 Australians were born in Afghanistan, with community numbers swelling in the time since.
The first day felt like a celebration, with up to four games being played concurrently across the men’s and women’s sides of the tournament. The facility was flooded with young people, their fresh haircuts and shimmering sneakers gleaming in the sun, chanting songs about their team and their rivals.
Coming after a turbulent year for the community, with many participants hailing from suburbs in Sydney or Melbourne that were hardest hit by the Delta wave, and with the fall of Kabul still fresh in the memories, it initially appeared to be a release valve for pent up emotions.
But participants shrugged when asked if any of these issues played a part in the tournament’s popularity and the passion people had for it.
Mohsen Hasani, a player for Melbourne FC and recent migrant himself, said it was far more about belonging and finding a safe space as a minority, a product of a diaspora creating and valuing their own spaces.
“When you come to a country like Australia, as great as it is, there is heaps of obstacles as well.
“But when you come to a tournament like this, and you see there is a lot of people that you can connect with, that have been through the same thing you’ve been through, it helps a lot.”
Players spoke of their pride at winning in front of their community, how much it meant to be considered the best among the diaspora, how important it was that their own community witness their greatness.
Hussain Ramazani, the tournament’s organiser, explained that identity and community were central to the tournament, intertwined with their collective experience of migration.
“We’re here for the youth, firstly, but to also respect our culture and what it means to be Afghan. We celebrate our freedom, and we want the youth to understand what their background means.
“We work for the young people, actually,” he continues. “They come to understand their background, to understand the value of their community. We’re here to know ourselves, and that is how we become an active, positive community here.”
He explains the tournament’s profile has skyrocketed over time, with bragging rights growing along with its reach.
Battle lines are drawn along state borders, almost arbitrary in their relevance, but enough of a difference to drive rivalries to extreme heights.
Going into the event this year, Sydney team Azadi were the favourites on the men’s side. In the second group game, they won 4-0 against the Brisbane All Stars, easing into the knockout rounds.
In the fallout of the game, and especially when it became obvious Brisbane would not be making the knockouts, the team complained that Azadi had fielded an unregistered player. Brisbane wanted the result made void, and for Azadi to be thrown out of the competition.
The player was a reserve goalkeeper who took to the field for minutes, before the team was notified he wasn’t registered and took him off. But Brisbane wanted more, citing the rules they signed at the outset of the tournament, stipulating a team was disqualified if it fielded an unregistered player.
Ramazani was left in a difficult position, initially agreeing that Azadi should be disqualified. But the decision sparked protests, pushing and shoving between teams and extensive diplomacy, with Ramazani then retracting the decision and deciding instead to have a replay.
Brisbane were livid, refusing to back down from demanding Azadi be disqualified.
In the car park, between brawls and debates, one man threatened to harm himself if the decision wasn’t reversed. Seeing the chaos and violence, the Wanderers pulled the plug, with police called to send everyone home.
Ramazani says he spent the night in endless meetings, attempting to broker peace between the teams, and a resolution for the tournament. Azadi was ultimately ejected from the competition, with no replay ordered.
It was decided the women’s side of the tournament would continue at the Wanderers facility, and that the men would hold an “unofficial” final day at a suburban ground, to crown a winner before the interstate teams had to head home.
Teams from Melbourne won both the men’s and women’s side of the tournament, much to the chagrin of the Sydney contingent. The women’s final was resolved after a dramatic penalty shootout, while the mens final was won 2-1 by Melbourne United.
The final for the women was the last “official” match of the tournament. Although spectators were restricted to just the families of the players, the crowd swelled as the game wore on, bringing out traditional drums and chanting for their team under a glorious Sydney sunset.
It was almost like nothing had happened. And to many, the drama was just part and parcel of the event, an understanding of what was at stake.
“We did this for ourselves, no one else,” Nooria Mohamed-Zia, captain of winners Melbourne United, says.
“We lost the final for three years in a row, we’ve been thinking about this moment for three years and we finally did it. Nothing else matters.”