A Kolkata Afghan’s gift of rugby to his homeland

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  1. ejazr

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    A Kolkata Afghan’s gift of rugby to his homeland - Indian Express

    Zaffar Khan’s first visit to Afghanistan, the home of his forefathers, last year was traumatic. In Paktia province on the border — from where his parents fled to India as Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan in 1978 — the 26-year-old was accosted by turbaned, heavily bearded men. The men, who Zaffar reckons were the Taliban, took him aside and reprimanded him for roaming about in inappropriate Western attire.

    Recently, the rugby player from Kolkata got another chance to visit Afghanistan — travelling to Kabul and Jalalabad as a development coach on the invitation of the newly-formed Afghanistan Rugby Union. And this time, he said, the sport ensured that he found enough reason to feel cheerful.

    “My first visit in 2010 was really bad, and after encountering the Talib I was scared of even opening the door while staying with relatives. So this time I had decided I would not move out of Kabul. But I found I could venture out, and really enjoyed meeting young boys who showed enthusiasm for rugby,” Zaffar said.

    Zaffar who played for India against Pakistan and Malaysia in 2008, took to the game as a teenager after his dreams of playing competitive cricket were dashed by a back injury. In 2004, Zaffar, who would often hang around watching the Kolkata rugby side Jungle Crows muck about with the egg-shaped ball at the Esplanade Maidan, was invited by Paul Walsh, the Crows’ British coach, to join in.

    Zaffar accepted the invite, and is today a regular with the Crows. His family was very supportive, he said, and he soon discovered he had a flair for the hardy sport.

    In November last year, Zaffar was contacted by Abdul Khalil, Afghan rugby’s liaison man, who offered him the Rugby Union assignment. He decided to give it a go, and travelled to Afghanistan in mid-June.

    “We’re doing well in cricket back in Afghanistan, but those boys have a natural talent for contact sport. There’s wrestling and Thai boxing clubs sprouting everywhere, and I realized in just 15 days that I could go well beyond basics, and get them started on tackles. Rugby is tailor-made for our love for physical sport,” he said.

    In Kabul, Zaffar experienced first-hand what makes the Afghans naturally resilient ruggers.

    “We were practising at Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium. I was moving around a little gingerly because of all the horrid things like stoning and killing that have happened there in the past. At one point, as I was bending to tie my shoe-laces, I heard a very loud explosion. As I looked up startled, the boys told me to relax: ‘Ustaad, kuchh nahin, roz ka dhamaka hai’. That’s when I knew that rugby tackles could bring no fear to these boys.”

    There were the lighter moments too, Zaffar recalled — like when he was told by his guffawing wards that his attempts at speaking Dari made him sound like a shy young girl. “Imagine a big, tough rugby player being told he sounds like a girl!” laughed Zaffar.

    Enthusiastic as he might be taking his sport to his homeland, Kolkata — and India — runs in his blood, said Zaffar. “To tell you the truth, I was never good at studies. It is in Kolkata that I found rugby, and the sport has given me an identity in India, and now in Afghanistan... The coaching that I will impart there will bear the ‘Made in India’ stamp.”

    ---------- Post added at 09:25 PM ---------- Previous post was at 09:24 PM ----------

    The Telegraph - Calcutta (Kolkata) | Metro | Return to roots on rugby wings

    The oval rugby ball has scripted a return-to-roots story straddling Calcutta and Kabul.

    The protagonist is 25-year-old Zaffar Khan, an Indian citizen of Afghan origin, who will be travelling to the land of his ancestors to teach youngsters there a game that gave his life “a new direction”.

    The Afghan Rugby Federation has invited Khan to pick and coach its under-19 contact rugby team. The 10-day camp will start on Friday.

    “In December I received a call from Afghanistan asking me to train boys there. They selected me because I speak the local language, Pashto, and also because I have some experience in the game,” explained Khan.

    He was a stranger to the game even in 2005. “In the summer that year, my friend and I were strolling past the Rangers Club on the Maidan when I saw a white man holding a strange-looking ball to demonstrate something to foreigners and Indians huddled around him,” recalls the former student of South City college.

    The “white” man was former UK diplomat Paul Walsh. Perhaps because of his build, Khan was asked if he wanted to play the game — rugby — and he immediately agreed.

    From a novice playing for the club, Jungle Crows, formed by Walsh, Khan went on to become the coach-cum-manager of the club in September 2010.

    Zaffar says that summer afternoon gave his “aimless life some direction”. “I don’t know what would have happened to me had my path not crossed Paul’s,” he admits.

    “I was not cut out for academics. My family was doing so much for me, but I was not being able to give them back anything. But I am earning from rugby now, kids look up to me and that gives me a strange satisfaction. I know it’s not a very lucrative career but I have achieved things that have helped me hold my head high.”

    This is Khan’s second visit to Kabul, the first being in January 2010, when he went to the Afghan capital to try and spread awareness about rugby. “I went to Paktia to trace my roots and meet my family. In Kabul I tried to spread the game and meet people in the sports circuit. But nothing came out of that trip and I returned disappointed.”

    The boys in Kabul should gear up for the disciplined instructor who does not allow a slip on the field but is indulgent off it.

    Outside the ground, the tough coach makes way for a calm and composed young man. “That is what the game does to you — it burns a lot of negative energy and leaves you calmer. That is why I want to take the game to countries like Afghanistan and even Pakistan,” says Khan.

    Going back to Afghanistan, which he calls “the land of the blue and the brown — the blue of the sky and the brown of the soil”, is his way of “giving back”. “My mother is scared, she doesn’t want me to return to Afghanistan. But I can feel she is happy that I am doing something for the Afghans,” he says.

    Rugby has taken Zaffar to France, Malaysia and several parts of India. But his heart lies in Calcutta. “I love the city. No matter where I am in the world, after a few days I miss the Bengali language and the smell of the Maidan, where I have been practising for the past six years,” he says.
     
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