Since the Royal Marines of Kilo Company (K Coy), 42 Commando, arrived in Rahim, deep in the green zone of Nahr-e Saraj (South) [NES(S)], in April, they’ve worked closely with the 4th Tolay (Company) of the 6th Kandak (an Afghan battalion) of the ANA, fighting and patrolling side by side against the insurgents.
However, with a trophy - the Cobra Cup - at stake, both sides knew the close bonds that had been formed over four months would be left to one side.
The venue for the big game was a playing field 100 metres from Patrol Base 5 (PB5), which the soldiers and Marines call home.
Overlooked by locals’ compounds, a graveyard, two village communities, and the sangars and cameras of PB5, the boundaries are not marked by chalk lines but by the surrounding wadis, irrigation ditches and scrub.
It would not have stood up to the scrutiny of the FA (Football Association) but, ahead of the game, K Coy worked hard to make the most of the space.
Under the cover of darkness, they acquired some goal posts, used Mastiff vehicles to level out the ploughed area just outside the 18-yard (16.5m) box, and, most importantly, made sure the pitch was clear of any legacy mines or improvised explosive devices.
Despite being outside the protection of the base, the players swapped their combats, body armour and helmets for their football kit. For the locals, who had come to witness the game, it was a rare sight to see the Marines out of uniform and without their protective clothing.
Major Jase Durup, the Officer Commanding Kilo Company, said:
The game not only marked the start of Ramadan, it demonstrated the level of security in the protected community of Rahim Kalay, and, more importantly, cemented the already strong relationship between the 4th Tolay and K Company.
The game kicked off and was a very well-balanced affair with moments of brilliance from both sides. The first half went without goals. A well-floated cross from the ANA seemed to caress the far post, and some solid defending from both teams kept the ever-venomous attackers out.
Solid leadership from Major Durup and his counterpart from the 4th Tolay, Lumrai Bridman Abdullah, kept both sides from wandering a rudderless path, both captains’ hands firmly on the tiller.
It was not until halfway through the second half when the breakthrough came; a justifiably arrogant attempt and astonishing free-kick from a young warrior, yards short of the halfway line, caught the Marines’ goalkeeper off guard and sailed into the top corner. K Coy could not follow suit and, as the final whistle blew, a cheer from the crowd erupted and young boys and girls invaded the pitch as the home team came out on top.
Major Durup said he was surprised by the size of the crowd:
There were children, farmers and elders gathered at the side of the pitch. By the end of the match we had attracted nearly a hundred onlookers.
The game reinforced the bonds of trust that the Taliban are trying to break. It also resulted in a number of challenges from teams in the local community who want to take us on. We’re looking forward to facing them with a combined team to celebrate Eid.
One Brit was happy with the result, however; Captain Andy Horsfall from the 9th/12th Royal Lancers, as a part of the Kandak Advisory Training Team, had volunteered to play for the Afghans to make up numbers, and ended up sharing in their glory.
Their excitement was almost tangible as Lieutenant Colonel James de Labilliere, the Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion The Rifles (to whom K Company are attached), presented the Cobra Cup to the winning team from the podium.
Lieutenant Colonel Saboor, 6th Kandak Commander, said he was proud of his team:
What a great day it was for the people of Rahim Kalay and the Afghan National Army; a simple game of football had brought the soldiers and the community together.
Despite losing, Lt Col de Labilliere was pleased with how the event had gone:
Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable for us all to be outside the base without body armour and helmets, side by side with local people, enjoying something as normal as a game of football. The match has highlighted how far Rahim Kalay has come in terms of security, and it was encouraging to see people come down to watch alongside us.
It also shows the genuine bond there is between British and Afghan forces which has been built up thanks to the excellent work from both nationalities in Combined Force NES(S). Enhancing the relationship on the pitch also helps to improve how they work together on patrol.
K Company are now planning lots of practice to improve their skills before the next match.