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.
Predicted starting 11 for semifinal match
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.
A little post-game snooker action
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!
Ferozi FC secures third win of autumn campaign
A late goal from Parwais Kazemi (#7) proved to be enough to edge Ferozi FC ahead of Saramyasht FC (“Red Crescent FC”) 2-1 in the toughest matchup thus far of the autumn campaign. Ferozi FC now advances to 3-0-0 with three group stage games left to play before potentially a one-game semifinal and one-game final.
We saw the addition of a new forward today from the fraught Ghazni province in eastern Afghanistan. Hashmat (#5), this new player, came on in the second half and despite taking a shot to the head almost immediately, showed a good work rate that opened up the game for us in the attacking third.
Our first goal came in the first half from Jamshid Mohammadi (#20), who tapped in from a meter out after Parwais’s cross was deflected by a defender and left the Saramyasht goalkeeper stranded. Saramyasht equalized before the half time break, however, when a forward cut in between our backline and goalkeeper as they hesitated over who would clear the ball.
I went the full 90 in today’s matchup and felt better and better as the game progressed. I was no doubt inspired by the Williams College men’s soccer team (part of my extended family), who defeated arch rival Amherst at Amherst for the second consecutive year to advance to the Division III NCAA Final Four. This was the first outright defeat Amherst had suffered in 40 games! (Last year’s Elite 8 defeat to Williams was on penalty kicks.) A huge congrats to the boys and to Coach Russo who continues to create magic into his sixties.
Football in Mazar-i-Sharif
On the invitation of a footballing friend I made while working for the Afghan Premier League—this friend, Walid, played striker for the team that lost in extra time of the Championship—I took a trip to Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. The logistics of how we’d meet up were hazy going into the trip, so I was pleasantly surprised when Walid called just as I was landing to say he was waiting in the airport parking lot.
My wonderful host
I was even more surprised when Walid was waiting in the airport parking lot behind the wheel of a Jaguar. Little did I expect my first ride in a Jag to be in Mazar, with a 22-year-old college student. Among a litany of complications: who’s going to fix the thing if it breaks down? By way of offbeat elucidation, Walid explained that after he finished his bachelor’s degree in law he would step full-time into the licorice exporting business, the proceeds from which had apparently been substantial enough already to fund our ride.
We made a flashy entrance into Mazar as we cranked the music and cut across town to gorge ourselves on kabuli palau (a steamed lamb leg buried in a hillock of oily rice, raisins, and carrot shreds, pictured here). We then headed back to Walid’s place, where all four of his brothers joined us for hours of green tea, more raisins and nuts, and Turkish soap-operas dubbed in Farsi.
Walid parked the car that night in a lot co-inhabited by small, slumbering mountains of fresh licorice roots. His outlandish story appeared to be true.
Due to a disappearing flash card, I have only an odd assortment of camera-phone photos to share. But take my word that we visited the beautifully restored Shrine of Hazrat Ali (“The Blue Mosque”) that gives Mazar-i-Sharif (“Tomb of the Exalted”) its name. There, I did my best to look angelic while playing with the thousands of white pigeons that live in the shrine complex. It’s said that any bird that lands on the dome of the shrine will turn white within 40 days due to the holiness of the place.
We headed over to Balkh, one of the oldest cities in Asia. Today, Balkh is a sleepy town with only ruins to remind passersby of its former glory. It also contains a series of sakhikhanas, sweet-smelling “tea houses” on the Amsterdam model.
We checked out the local football stadium. Given the strength of the Afghan Premier League team from Mazar, I was surprised at the battered state of the field, especially in comparison with the two brand-new turf fields that Kabul now boasts.
The Mazar football stadium
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highlight of the trip was when Walid rented out a futsal complex late on my last night in town. Walid, his brothers, some neighbors, and other football junkies all met up for an hour of winner-stays-on goals and celebrations that, as elsewhere, brought me closer to the guys than my limited Farsi could ever do singlehandedly. I was sent home with one of Walid’s old jerseys as a souvenir and invitations to come back to Mazar to play ball anytime.
Back in Action
After a lengthy “off-season” during which 13 teammates participated in the Afghan Premier League, Ferozi FC had our first match of the new campaign today. We defeated Sabawon FC 2-1 in a game where we controlled the possession and missed some stupendous chances. We dinked shots off the left post twice. Still, a goal from our center back off a corner kick and a second from our forward who ran onto a beautiful cross at the back post was enough to hang on for the victory.
Our heart-warming and calorie-limited pregame ritual was spiced up today by the issuing of new Ferozi FC kits. #12 was the number first issued to me by the club and, for that reason, I’m sticking with it. (Research reveals that Thierry Henry for France and John Obi Mikel for Chelsea sport the #12, so I’m not totally alone.) Some teammates took it upon themselves to procure a hand-crank sewing machine to make the sleeves and shorts more form fitting.
I managed to go 90 minutes today at defensive midfield without expiring from oxygen deprivation. The first game back is a notorious lung-burner, but I edged on the conservative side with my runs and, besides that, am feeling decently fit.
A combination of increasing appreciation of Afghan talent abroad and financial troubles within the club has led to significant personnel changes all over the field. Which is not to say we are any less strong—we acquired some great players who have been waiting for some time to play for Coach Elyas—but we need time to learn one another’s habits. One admittedly big loss, though, is our star forward and my guest housemate Hashmat, who signed a contract with the Indian League’s Mumbai FC just last week. He’s off to a great start: he scored a goal today in his first game for his new club! But his absence leaves a large hole in our attack and today we coped by dropping back into a 4-5-1 formation.
The format of the Kabul Premier League is the same as the Kabul Cup Tournament that Ferozi FC won back in May. There are two groups of 7 teams, with each team playing the other members of its group once. The top two teams from each group advance to a one-game semifinal and one-game final.
Sunset after the game
How to make delicious mantu: Roll the dough, prepare spicy ground beef, glue the dumpling shut with a dab of water, then steam those suckers!
One of the coolest projects from the Afghan Premier League this year—collectible Topps trading cards of the players. Stats include age, height, weight, dominant foot, and home province. $0.35/pack, available now in Kabul! Click here to read an article from Al Jazeera entitled “Can soccer trading cards create a new kind of hero for Afghanistan?”