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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 April, 2004, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Afghan footballers go 'missing'
Missing Afghan footballers
Italian police have handed over the players' pictures to Interpol
Nine members of Afghanistan's national football team have gone missing while on tour in Italy.

The team's spokesman said the players failed to return from a night out in the northern town of Verona on Monday.

"We don't know if they were looking for economic asylum or if they just stayed out all night at a disco," AFP news agency quoted him as saying.

The series of games in Italy is the Afghan team's first appearance in Europe for 20 years.

Football was banned in Afghanistan after the Taleban regime came to power in 1996.

The team coach, Mir Ali Asger Akbarzola, has said the players would not be able to take part in the match against Verona on Tuesday - even if they came back in time.

"It's 20 years since our national side last played in Europe and our people need football to give them hope," Italy's Ansa news agency quoted him as saying.

The proceeds from the tour will go towards construction of medical centres in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Motives unclear

Verona police spokesman Luigi Altamura said it was unclear if the players were seeking to defect from Afghanistan.
Sporting defectors
August 2003 - 12 members of Sierra Leone's Under-17 national football team go missing in Finland
August 2003 - Three Cuban gymnasts defect at the World Gymnastics Championships in the US
January 2002 - Six members of the Cuban volleyball team disappear while playing in Belgium
August 2001 - 106 participants from all over Africa seek asylum during Canada's Francophone games

They do not have their passports with them because a team official had all the team's documents.

But according to Italian radio, "the fugitives have already reached Germany, where a numerous Afghan community lives, to ask for political asylum".

The game against Verona will still be played because a few Afghan players living in Germany have been called in to replace the missing team members, Ansa reported.

Afghan soccer defectors return
29 Jun 02  |  South Asia
Football family helps Afghanistan
17 Sep 03  |  World Football


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