The tournament took place at Patrol Base Nahidullah, near Babaji, in the heart of the central Helmand river valley. It was organised by Captain Neil Foot-Tapping, the Afghan National Army (ANA) advisor from the 9th/12th Royal Lancers, and Captain Kul of 2nd Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, who are currently heading up the Police Mentoring and Advisory Group in Babaji.
Captain Foot-Tapping said:
We have a tough job here in the heat and harsh conditions for six months but we often forget that the Afghan warriors are here for the long term. The tolay [Afghan Army unit] I live and work with have been here for over a year and most have only had two weeks off.
R&R [Rest & Recuperation], Playstations and internet are not part of their welfare package and it’s all too easy to overlook just how lucky British soldiers are.
The Afghans love four things outside of soldiering - volleyball, cricket, learning English and sleeping, and in that order. So we thought what better than a little competitive sport to help people get to know each other better and enjoy some valued time off.
The competition took place last Friday, a day of religious celebration for Afghans and time to devote to understanding more about the writings of the Quran, but also a day when regular patrolling does not happen and outside of prayer time is used for relaxing, washing clothes in the well and recuperating before another hard week of operations.
The centre court was a re-engineered helicopter landing site (HLS) that near perfectly matched the dimensions of an international standard volleyball court, with a net made from pickets and para-cord. The first challengers were a team from B Company, 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (4 SCOTS), and bagpipes provided live musical accompaniment to the tournament.
With strong support for both teams at the side lines the ANA proved a force to be reckoned with and stamped their authority on the tournament with a dominating 25-18 win. The majority of rules were observed, but the tolay commander, Lieutenant Aziz Bakhshee, decided that he should lead from the front and serve for the whole game.
As the next challengers stepped onto the metal boards that form the HLS, the atmosphere was tense with anticipation. The Gurkhas are well known amongst the ANA, not only for their contribution to mentoring and security in previous tours of Afghanistan, but also for their professionalism on the volleyball court.
There was stiff competition from the outset and rising tempers, with every point being fiercely contested. The ANA made a strong comeback that saw the game hung at 24-24 with the serve held by the ANA.
As Lieutenant Bakhshee, still serving, smashed the ball deep in to the rear of the court, the Gurkhas were forced to return the ball on the back foot. A resounding ‘spike’ from the Afghan tolay marked the end of a well-fought tournament and crowned the ANA soldiers as winners.
Lieutenant Bakhshee said:
It was great to chat with some of the ISAF company’s soldiers and not talk about soldiering. My men love volleyball and hopefully the Scots will put up more of a challenge next time! I thank them for the bagpipes which provided an excellent soundtrack; I look forward to hearing them again after successful operations this summer.