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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 perilous. 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 foreigners 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 is a must-see (though we recommend avoiding games for the time being). During Afghanistan's Taliban era (1996-2001), the ruling regime invoked an unusually harsh interpretation of Islam to ban music, films and television. Sports were one of the few pastimes that remained legal. Kabulis would flock to Ghazi Stadium in the evenings to watch local teams do battle while literal battles were being fought elsewhere in the country. The Taliban frequently took advantage of the venue and its built-in audience to stage floggings, amputations, and even public executions.
The post-9/11 US-led invasion saw the toppling of the Taliban government and major changes to life in Kabul. By 2011, Ghazi Stadium had been rebuilt and many of its ghosts have been forgotten. Elsewhere, Afghanistan is still rebuilding.
Due to both the unique challenges posed by traveling in post-conflict areas and by Ghazi Stadium's unique and important history, 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. Pack an anti-diarrheal like Imodium.
Despite only seeing a few minutes of a youth practice, we were moved by the atmosphere.
Ghazi Stadium is Afghanistan in a nutshell and Afghanistan at its best. Gorgeous views. Painful history. Foreign intervention. Local spirit. Look around and take it all in. The hills are one of this city's trademarks and Ghazi Stadium provides an excellent venue to sit and admire their beauty. Glance down at the field and think of not only the sports history, but also the political history. This was an execution site of one of the harshest regimes in recent history. This stadium, like a good portion of this country, was reconstructed largely under foreign leadership. But look around at the murals of the Afghan "ghazis" who gaze over the field. Even after decades of outside influence, this stadium, like this country, is still decidedly Afghan.
Ghazi Stadium offers a lot to look at and also a lot to think about.
Because we visited on a non-game day, we cannot adequately assess the game day atmosphere in the Neighborhood around Ghazi Stadium.
The venue 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 bulk of the city is just a short drive away.
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 Ghazi Stadium's neighborhood, and a more detailed review, in the future.
It's important to point out that 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 at this time.
Only a dozen or so fans were milling about the stadium to watch local youths practice during our visit. The stadium does get good crowds for large events. We hope to revisit this stadium in the future to attend a game.
Ghazi Stadium's accessibility is par for the course in terms of stadiums in the developing world, though noticeably less accessible than those in the West.
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, most 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 Ghazi Stadium when no event was going on.
Our local guide negotiated our entry. A fluent speaker of Persian (ideally the local dialect, Dari) or Pashto 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 professonal security pat-down by stadium guards.
Inside, fans should expect steep and uneven stairs and exceptionally little legroom. Fans with even moderate physical challenges will have a difficult time here. Even slim and fit fans will have difficulty making their way to a seat in the middle of an aisle.
Even with no event going on, we could smell the restrooms from a good 15 meters (46 feet) away. Use the facilities before arriving at the stadium, if at all possible.
It cost us nothing to spend 10 minutes in Ghazi Stadium during a youth practice. Given the stadium's history and the pleasant view it provides, we consider this an excellent value and a must-do on any Kabul itinerary.
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 Ghazi Stadium to all stadium aficionados in the future. Potential for tourism in this city 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 Afghanistan.
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