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Official Review by Gary Butterworth, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
NOTE: Stadium Journey emphatically advises against all travel to Afghanistan. Most Western governments do the same. As of our visit in July 2016, the security situation in the capital, Kabul, is at one of the best points it has seen in decades. However, even this is fragile. Other parts of the country are not as lucky. Just days after our visit, a van carrying Western tourists was ambushed and attacked approximately 650km (400 miles) west of here. Simply put, do not go to Afghanistan just yet.
That said, a thoroughly researched, meticulously planned trip to the Afghan capital shouldn't be a suicide mission. Scores of foreign civilians are present in the capital, and, with the help of trusted and savvy local guides, the vast majority leave without experiencing any violence or trauma.
If you find yourself in Kabul despite our advice, Ghazi Stadium should be stop #1 on your Stadium Journey. But just down the street, gaudy and unique Afghanistan Football Federation Stadium is a worthy second stop.
Due to both the unique challenges posed by traveling in post-conflict areas and by AFF Stadium's uniqueness, Stadium Journey took the unusual step of visiting on an off day. As such, this review should be considered incomplete.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Rating not possible as we visited on an off day.
The standard advice for developing world travel applies in Kabul. Drink only bottled water and soft drinks. Avoid uncooked foods that may have been washed in questionable water, like salads. Peel all fruits and vegetables that you do not plan to cook. Bread, rice, and packaged foods are generally safe. Alcoholic beverages and pork products are prohibited in Afghanistan. Pack an anti-diarrheal, like Imodium.
Perhaps surprisingly, high-quality, professionally-produced official recordings of full Afghan Premier League matches are available on YouTube. From what we can tell, crowds are relatively small but respectable, and the game presentation appears to be professionally run. Sadly, the YouTube experience is all we have to share, since we only managed to attend a few minutes of a practice. Even still, it was a worthwhile visit.
Afghanistan Football Federation Stadium is legitimately unique. This starts with the gaudy and unmissable fiberglass soccer balls sitting atop the corners of the three-story clubhouse behind one goal. Easier to miss but even gaudier is the fiberglass moose head gazing intently at the field from the clubhouse. If you like quirky and unique features, AFF Stadium has you covered.
Even if you stick your nose up at the ostentatious clubhouse, the view should be enough to keep you satisfied. Nearby and distant hills provide a pleasant setting and enough local flavor to remind you that yes, you're in Afghanistan.
AFF Stadium also does a good job at directing your attention onto the field while also setting itself apart from more cookie-cutter venues. The end-line seating at the clubhouse end sits at an angle to the field. The result is something between what one would expect at a soccer specific stadium and what one would expect at a stadium with an athletics track. (There is no athletics track at AFF Stadium.) These seats provide a vantage point that is not commonly available elsewhere, likely because it's not particularly desirable. Aside from these, most seats provide an excellent view of the action on the field.
Afghanistan Football Federation Stadium is in a fairly central area of Kabul, but without any immediate neighbors. Pulling up to the stadium, you'll notice that this block is quiet, even dead. But the rest of the bulk of the city is just a short drive away, and Ghazi Stadium within walking distance.
There is no sense of "clear and present danger" at the stadium, in its neighborhood, or even in most of Kabul. The risk is mostly of being caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the odds are strongly in your favor (though foreigners on longer stays could be targeted). Still, foreigners exercising caution will want to limit their movements in this city. We hope that security will improve enough to allow for a more thorough visit to this neighborhood, and a more detailed review, in the future.
Guest houses and hotels hosting foreigners have been targeted during the Afghan conflict, even during relatively quiet periods. As such, we are unable to recommend any hotels in Afghanistan. Restaurants have similarly been targeted but should be considered perhaps a bit less risky.
Only a few fans were present during our brief visit to watch a local team practice. The Afghan Premier League, the stadium's primary tenant, has attracted significant investment. Games are broadcast live online and on Afghanistan's most popular TV channels, and a push is underway to bring even more attention to the league, which plays all of its games here at AFF Stadium. We hope to revisit this stadium in the future to attend a game and get a first-hand feel of the level of fan support.
Fans used to Western infrastructure might find Afghanistan a bit of a challenge, but it's not particularly different from other developing countries. In fact, by South and Central Asian standards, getting to AFF Stadium and then getting around it isn't bad at all. In fact, it's even a bit better than its larger neighbor, Ghazi Stadium. But first, you have to get there.
Unless you are Afghan or possibly a citizen of neighboring country willing to take a risk, you will absolutely want to arrive in Kabul by air and travel within the city in a private car with a highly trusted local driver. (As of mid-2016, many roads outside of the capital are too dangerous for foreigners, even if traveling as a passenger.) Your driver or guide will know how to navigate the city, behave at checkpoints, and manage parking.
Attending sporting events has traditionally been a safe pastime in Afghanistan. That said, one of the golden rules of travel to unstable regions is to avoid crowds, as they make lucrative soft targets. The chance of being caught in violence at an Afghan sporting event is minuscule, but, out of an abundance of caution, we opted to visit when no event was going on.
Our local guide negotiated our entry. A fluent speaker of Pashto or Persian (ideally the local dialect, Dari) can likely do the same. An English speaker may or may not be successful. There was no entry ticket, and no bribes were requested, but we were given a thorough and professional security pat-down by the stadium's armed guards.
Once inside, we were free to roam around.
It cost us nothing to spend 10 minutes in AFF Stadium during a local team's practice. We were glad we did. Though lacking the history and political significance of nearby Ghazi Stadium, AFF Stadium is worth a quick stop.
No extras were available on this trip.
Afghan hospitality is legendary, and many visitors to the Afghan capital report having an enjoyable and rewarding time. Stadium Journey concurs. We want to give this stadium a high recommendation, but security concerns mean that we cannot advise a visit at this time. The good news is that security is improving, and we are optimistic that we may be able to recommend a visit to Afghanistan Football Federation Stadium to all stadium aficionados in the future. The potential for tourism in Kabul is high, and tourists are starting to trickle in. But this city is still not completely safe. Until it is, please do not go to Kabul.
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