Landlocked Afghanistan is not an obvious place for beach volleyball to take off. The country does not boast one beach, winter temperatures plunge far below zero, and conservative dress codes make the standard skimpy uniforms for female players unthinkable.
Even the sand in Kabul is wrong, Yunus Popalzay, head of the volleyball federation, admits from his office at the Ghazi stadium. The only court in the capital has a base mixed with soil and is far less fine than the loose grains that bogged his players down on their international debut last year, when they lost every match. There are just two other courts in the country.
But fired up by his decades-long love affair with volleyball, and riding a wave of national pride about unlikely sporting success from the football pitch to taekwondo mats, Popalzay is convinced beach-style matches have a popular and financial future at home.
“Volleyball is one of the top three sports in Afghanistan, in terms of the number of people who play it, after football and cricket,” he said. “We decided beach volleyball should be established even if we don’t have beaches – we only need sand. It’s not very costly and almost an individual performance sport.”
The main difference between beach volleyball and its indoor cousin is the number of players. Teams of two people compete in the outdoor game, while indoor teams are six-strong.
And that, Popalzay says, offers a great opportunity – smaller teams make coaching schedules for amateur players easier and sponsorship more attractive.
“Beach volleyball is a very commercialised sport, there is a very good potential for investors. With two players you can invest just $200 (£125) on a monthly basis and it can be a good marketing tool for your company,” he said. “It’s a chance for companies to put their brand, their logo out.”
Volleyball has long been a popular sport in Afghanistan’s mountainous north and east. The relatively small pitches can be tucked into corners of river valleys where almost every last metre of flat land is zealously guarded for agriculture.
The net is easily substituted: “We just had a piece of cable tied to posts,” said shopkeeper Mohammad Reza, 42, who played as a child. “I will watch if there is nothing else on TV.”
Like many in Kabul, he has heard of beach volleyball but has only a vague idea of what it is, while memories of traditional indoor tournaments linger on. When the country was peaceful, it had a strong national team; part of the international volleyball federation since 1975, its players competed across the Soviet Union.
With civil war and the near-collapse of Afghan society, that vanished along with other sports organisations. People in villages and refugee camps kept heading to courts to play, but memories of official rules and tournaments faded.
The national teams are still feeling the effect when they try out players who are great at controlling the ball but have little clue about rules or tactics.
“It takes a lot of effort to give them the international and modern volleyball techniques … It’s sometimes very difficult, you can’t change in six months the way they were playing for 20 years,” Popalzay said.
For beach volleyball, the challenge is even greater; many players at the national trials this week had never set foot on a beach volleyball court before.
“I was amazed when I heard I was chosen because they don’t have any beach volleyball area in my home province and so I came here without any preparation,” said Ahmad Farid Faqirzada, 26, an aid worker. “I just thought why not give it a try?”
It gets so cold in northern Takhar that even indoor games are impossible; he will spend the next few months simply keeping fit, before going to Kabul in spring to pick up a ball again.
Getting a team of novices like Faqirzada ready for the world stage will be difficult, with just three courts throughout the country and almost no funding – but an even larger challenge may lie ahead. The federation, which already has a women’s national indoor volleyball team, is convinced that Afghanistan could one day field a women’s beach volleyball duo as well.
“According to the international federation there is no obligation to have the uniform used by other countries, they can play in uniforms that conform with religious requirements.”
For now, though, Popalzai said the sport’s reputation means his coaches will only be training male beach volleyball teams.
“The situation does not allow us to encourage families to play beach volleyball in Afghanistan, it’s a very sensitive country and we don’t want our indoor players not to be allowed by their families because they are saying ‘look at those beach volleyball girls’.”