A few trips to Nadir Khan Hill in Kabul to partake in the Afghan pastime of kite flying yielded the pictures you see above. This is how things work:
1) Gather friends.
2) Either buy kites and plastic string from the vendors who make the kites at home and sell them out of their cars (like we did), or go to the market to purchase the materials and glue the kites together yourself.
3) Alternatively, if you’re smart, construct a kite-catcher made of tree branches, snag the kites that have been defeated in duels, and use those kites (or re-sell them). Duels are fought by entangling your kite string with an opponent’s and then tugging hard on the line to break his string.
4) Pay a visit to the dried fruit and nut sellers.
Two great chances are coming up to discover more about football in Kabul.
1) Back in October, ESPN sent a camera crew over to Kabul to film a piece about how I spent my time living and playing football, professional and otherwise. The quality of the crew’s videography is stunning. You can see a trailer for the story by clicking here. The full 10-12 minute piece will run on ESPN’s SportsCenter this Sunday, February 9, at 10AM and will be re-run on the 11PM show. I invite you to tune in!
2) While in Kabul, I spent far more time behind the camera than in front of it. I spent a full two months hanging out every day in a park in the center of town, filming the stories of four young men who show up to play pick-up soccer. What emerged from our time together is a remarkable account of the role of football—both good and bad—in our lives.
As described in the video above, we’re now looking for financial support to turn all this footage into a polished documentary film. We launched a Kickstarter page (linked here) just yesterday where you can learn much more about our project and potentially contribute! And even if you cannot contribute, we would appreciate if you could spread the word.
All your support brings us closer to being able to share even more about the Kabul football scene and the many friends I met during my time playing there.
Since the completion of the Kabul Premier League in mid-December, right before the snow made its way down the mountains to fall on Kabul proper, I’ve been back with my family in Rochester, NY. Despite the fact that winter has slowed down the pace of football in Kabul, I’m missing the friends I made through endless hours playing the game there. At the same time, it’s a real pleasure to be home with my folks and to share my experience with anyone willing to listen.
Even though in returning home I’ve had to take my finger off the pulse of football in Kabul, I will still be updating this blog with big developments coming out of the world of Afghan football. For example, the Afghanistan Football Federation was awarded FIFA’s Fair Play Award earlier this month for the achievements of their national team, the continual development of the Afghan Premier League, and efforts at the grassroots level to get more young players involved in football. AFF President and Governor of Panjshir Keramuddin Karim traveled to Zurich to accept the award and give a speech in front of Ronaldo, Messi, Ribery, and their respective girlfriends. The video, posted above, is worth a watch.
In other exciting news, the Afghanistan national team began training in Ghazi Stadium yesterday to prepare for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. The AFC Challenge Cup was first played in 2006 and developed in order to give “emerging countries” experience playing on the continental stage. The draw for the 2014 edition will be held on February 12, with competition to begin on May 19. Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Maldives, Myanmar, Palestine, the Philippines, and Turkmenistan have also qualified for the tournament.
The winner of the AFC Challenge Cup advances to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, the tournament held every four year to determine the champions of Asia.
Ferozi FC Falls in Finals; Little Lost, Much Gained
Ferozi FC suffered a disappointing 1-0 loss to Big Bear FC today in the finals of the 2013 Kabul Premier League. Our difficulties scoring finally proved fatal. At the same time, we peaked as a team on the defensive side of the ball, showing a fantastic work rate and grit against the best attacking four in Kabul.
Ferozi FC starting 11
In fact, the game was in large part a battle between the Sharifi brothers (strong, tall, shifty) up top for Big Bear, assisted by reliable flank midfielders, and our back line (including me at defensive midfield), who looked to win the ball and counter attack. Ferozi created a handful of chances in each half via these tactics, yet unfortunately we were not able to convert.
Posing with some teammates before the game, snow faintly visible on the mountains in the background
After a scoreless first half, our defense showed little sign of wear. It took a free kick in the 80th minute from 30 yards out for Big Bear to contrive the decisive blow. Following a high kick foul called against another of our midfielders, one of the Sharifi brothers sent a well-struck, dipping ball toward frame. It clunked against the underside of the crossbar and came shooting back out toward a horde of Big Bear players crashing the goal. There were many pleas from our team for an offside call, but to no avail. One of the horde had the composure to take the rebound and send it home. Big Bear held on for the last ten minutes plus stoppage time, and they were crowned the new champions of Kabul.
Coach Elyas and I pose with the runner-up trophy. Coach Elyas bravely led us to the KPL finals while making light of the adversity—from frozen salaries to transferred players to injuries to limited training time—he faced every step of the way.
Despite the defeat, little else was lost. As I told my team (in Dari) when we were gathered in Coach Elyas’s house for soup and tea before the game, I’ve been honored to be a part of Ferozi FC. It can be difficult living alone so far from home. But from Day 1, when I walked into my first practice with the team and couldn’t even introduce myself in the local language, my teammates said, “Bya o bozi ko” (“Come and play”). With my teammates, wherever we are and whatever we’re doing—but especially when we’re on the pitch playing football—I feel happy. In them, I’ve found a family. I couldn’t be more thankful.
Ferozi FC to Compete for Championship of Kabul Premier League
A resilient Ferozi FC earned a spot in the finals of the Kabul Premier League after defeating Setare Azade (“Star of Freedom”) FC 3-1 on penalty kicks. I notched my first goal for the club in the PK shootout, a goal that turned out to be decisive. Ferozi FC will now face a formidable Big Bear FC in the finals. Our previous meeting with Big Bear resulted in a 1-1 tie.
In the semifinals with Setare Azade FC, Ferozi FC had the edge in the first half. We started the game in a 4-5-1, the extra central midfielder allowing us to control possession in the center of the field and move up and down the pitch without getting stretched. Our sole striker, Hashmat (#5), had a few looks at goal but was not able to convert. On the other end of the field, our defense gave their best showing thus far in the league. The game was knotted at 0-0 going into halftime.
To begin the second half, a central midfielder gave way for Parwais (#7), who joined Hashmat up top. Our objective was to strike an early blow to Setare Azade and take them out of the game. In fact, however, Setare Azade was the first to mount a charge that knocked Ferozi back onto our heels. A nicely worked series of passes eventually found Setare Azade’s right midfielder open with space heading toward the end line. He stepped around our left back and sent a beautifully driven ball across our 6-yard box. The ball took one skip off the wet turf before converging with a Setare Azade forward, who slapped it home confidently to the near post.
With a half hour yet to play, we moved our 6’3” center back Said Mohammad (#4; #42 in image below) into the attack. Around the 75th minute, the move paid off. Said Mohammad won a corner kick, and then rose above the defense on the ensuing cross to head the equalizer just under the crossbar. Assad (#2) deserves heaps of credit for his delivery from the corner flag.
Graphic created by AFF’s Shams Amini to commemorate Ferozi FC’s 8th birthday
Full time expired with the game tied at 1-1. The captains from each team, fearing an early setting sun that could force the remainder of the game to be postponed until another day, successfully lobbied with the referees that we head straight to a penalty kick shootout. Here’s how the PK shootout unfolded, with Ferozi FC shooting first:
1a) Mahmood (#10) buries his shot to the goalie’s right 1-0 1b) Setare Azade’s shooter goes to the goalie’s left, which Hameed saves 1-0
2a) Said Mohammad guesses wrong and send his shot into the goalie’s chest as the goalie dives left 1-0 2b) Setare Azade shooter converts 1-1
3a) Rozuddin (#19) drives his shot to the keeper’s right; the keeper gets a hand to it but can’t prevent the goal 2-1 3b) Setare Azade’s third shooter skies his shot over the right crossbar 2-1
4a) I step up to the spot; I wait for the goalie to dive left before passing it home to his right 3-1 4b) Setare Azade’s fourth shooter also succumbs to the pressure and hits his shot wide left 3-1
And that was all we needed to advance to the finals. Having opened my account with Ferozi FC, I was giddy for hours after the game. But much work remains to be done against Big Bear FC with the Kabul Premier League Championship on the line.
Ferozi FC Advances to Kabul Premier League Semifinals
Ferozi FC defeated Suhl (“Peace”) FC in a nerve-racking 3-2 thriller to advance to the semifinals of the Kabul Premier League.
Depleted by injuries, we entered the match with only a 13-man roster. We are weakest at the forward position, so it was a pleasant surprise when our third-string striker created a chance in only the 5th minute of play. Taking a cross from the end line, Rozuddin (#19) took one touch to turn and then managed a shot while his momentum carried him away from net. His shot wasn’t well aimed but was struck with sufficient gusto to cause the goalie to give up a rebound to the back post. Our right flank midfielder Hameed (#17) was waiting there to tap it in.
As we are accustomed to do of late, however, we gave up two soft goals before halftime. The second came on a counter attack resulting from a Ferozi FC corner kick. The ball was cleared to the lone Suhl FC striker waiting at the midfield line, who used his pace to get behind our backs and drive a shot to the back post. His great individual effort was a wake-up call for us going into the second half.
Rozuddin worked some more magic around the 70th minute. We worked the ball out to the left flank midfielder, who then fed Roz as he was making a shallow cut toward the left corner flag. Roz’s first touch popped up, which incidentally set him up nicely for a half volley that he sent screaming to the near upper 90. Ferozi FC only needed a tie to advance, so we packed it in for the last 20 minutes of the game.
We got an insurance goal in the 85th minute when a header off a corner kick struck the hand of a Suhl FC defender in the box. The referee awarded a penalty kick. Mahmood (#10) stepped up to the spot and sent his shot to the goalie’s left while the goalie remained frozen.
At 4-1-1, Ferozi FC enters the semifinals as the second place seed from our group. We will face the first place seed from the opposite group, Setare Azade (“Star of Freedom”) FC. It will be a real test of character for us. We have to make do with the personnel available, create chances in the attacking third, and most importantly, not slip up mentally in the back.
Ferozi FC Controls Its Fate Heading into Final Group Stage Match
Despite suffering our first loss of the new campaign in our fourth group stage match against an energetic Maiwand FC, Ferozi FC bounced back to tie powerhouse Big Bear FC (sponsored by an energy drink) 1-1 in a tight and sometimes painful matchup. At 3-1-1, we now need a win or a tie in our final group stage match in order to advance to the semifinals.
The match with Maiwand FC fell on Thanksgiving, two days after an emotional 2-1 win over Saramyasht FC. Our performance was a classic case of playing down to our opponent’s level. Our forward Parwais put us up 1-0 ten minutes into the game, only to see the lead slip away in a matter of minutes. Maiwand scored two nearly identical goals in quick succession. In both cases, a through ball was played behind our defense, which was holding a high line. Our goalie rushed out of the box to clear the ball, only to be beaten to it by an opposing forward, who then had an open path to net. Our tired legs weren’t able to fashion a goal in the second half despite pushing an extra man into the attack for the last half hour of the game.
Our young but effective forward Parwais (left) with back-up goalkeeper Wais
We were a bit shaken up, therefore, heading into the match with Big Bear FC. Due to the dire financial straits Ferozi FC currently finds itself in, Big Bear was able to sign two of our key players in the break since the Kabul Cup Tournament in May. Big Bear had a deep bench and was yet to drop points in four matches.
The match took a turn for the worse when, around the 20-minute mark, a dribbling cross from a Big Bear forward found the corner of our goal after a dummy from a teammate froze our goalkeeper. It was a soft goal, and one we couldn’t afford to give up. Yet our defense stood strong for the rest of the match, which paid off with about 15 minutes left to play. Parwais was able to get on the end of a through ball and flick it over a charging Big Bear goalkeeper. Parwais’s powerful frame almost broke the goalkeeper in half in the ensuing collision. We held on through the lengthy extra time for a much needed point.
Now here’s my personal sob story/act of heroism, depending on how you look at it. I came into the game with a tweaked hammie, which is never fun. Plus, mentally, I was a bit shaken up after the Maiwand match, in which I didn’t play my best. Let’s say I started the game at 80%. Then, at the start of the second half, I took a clearance right to the tip of the old one eyed trouser snake, which could just about ruin your day, especially on a brisk December afternoon. That brought me down to 40%. I wanted to go somewhere warm and soft. Instead, I fought through the stinging sensation, and a few sprints later I was back to form and finished the game strong.
I celebrated Thanksgiving here in Kabul by tackling my first ever chicken impaled by and manually rotated on a large wooden spit. Of course, it’s not Auntie Dee’s turkey, gravy, stuffing, and rolls. But at least it captures the spirit of the day. Thank you for the ongoing support from family and friends back home!