Zohib Islam Amiri: the Afghan refugee turned football star

Zohib Islam Amiri: the Afghan refugee turned football star

A dejected 20-year-old, Zohib Islam Amiri, knew he would have to work a lot harder to prove his credentials on the international stage. It was December 11, 2011, and Afghanistan had just lost in the finals of the South Asian Football Federation Championship (SAFF) to distant neighbours India by four goals.

For an outsider familiar with the history of the country, reaching the finals is not an achievement to be scoffed at – after all, it’s a history that contains the Soviet War (1979 – 1989), the Civil War (1992 – 1996) and the Taliban regime (1996 – 2001). During this period, the only international tournament that they participated in was a futile attempt at qualifying for the 1984 Asian Cup in Singapore. Since then, the first international game for Afghanistan was against Sri Lanka in the 2003 SAFF Cup.

Amiri, an Afghan of Hazara descent whose parents hail from the province of Bamyan, grew up playing on the streets of Char Qala in Eastern Kabul. It wasn’t easy, as he recalls exclusively for These Football Times:

“It was very difficult for a child that was born during the time of war. I started playing football on streets, barefoot, no shoes. At the time we did not have bread to eat, nothing to drink. It was very difficult; no one could go out side. Sometimes when you are playing on the street, we would hear fighting, bombs go off.

“One time when I was a child I remember, we were in the ground watching a senior game, suddenly one went off 100 meters away and everybody starting running.”

That incident, and many after, did not deter his interest in the game, but instead only made it stouter. The Taliban were not against anyone playing the game. In fact, as Amiri explains, it was quite the opposite:

“Before Taliban it was football, and after Taliban it was football. Everyone was waiting till 4pm to watch the club games,” continuing after a moment of silence, “With football, Taliban had no issues. If you want to play, you can play. There was no issue. But during Taliban, it was very difficult to play with shorts which would be the only problem, everyone had to wear tracksuits.”

As conditions worsened in Kabul, the family moved to Karachi in Pakistan as refugees, leaving behind their possessions and everyone they knew. Moving to a new city and a different culture did not dissuade Amiri’s interest in the game. He continued playing on the streets, eventually joining an amateur team, along with his elder brothers, as a makeshift striker, scoring goals at will. Amiri ponders over one such moment while in Pakistan” “I was participating in a local Ramadan tournament as a young boy but was playing in the senior team. The shirt I wore came to my knee.”

• • • •

Little did he realise that a wedding would spark the start of a rather extraordinary career path. After Hamid Karzai took over as president of Afghanistan, the family decided to go back to their hometown to attend a wedding. While in Kabul, Amiri tagged along with his younger cousin to participate in a recreational game at a local club by the name of Shoa FC. The coach of the team had immediately noticed Amiri’s abilities and probed him further on prospects of playing for the club.

“I told him, of course I can play but I don’t live here, I live in Pakistan. He said its ok. ‘Till you are here you just come and play’.”

So he played and he enthralled the crowd as well as the coach, without rationalizing his performances. It was just a game of football that he enjoyed. The game led to Amiri being selected in the junior team of the club that eventually led to an invitation to join the senior team at national level. It all happened quickly, but Amiri was composed.

“At that time I did not take it seriously because I was young so I said ok, because I just wanted to play.”

By now, he was full of confidence, which was evident in his first game at the national level. Amiri’s tone adjusts with excitement:

“I was only 15. I remember in the dressing room, I was given the first shirt with no.9 on it by the coach. I questioned why would they give it to me considering that I am not even going to be in first eleven. Then the first name on the sheet, I saw, was mine. I had never played as a professional in my entire life and had no experience, how could I go and play? But I was confident.”

The prospect of playing for Afghanistan was slowly creeping in his mind but he did not let that imagination affect his reality. He was not even sure if the country had a national team.

He played for a solid 45 minutes before gasping for air and gulps of water, which could not have tasted any sweeter at that moment, all the while being observed by attentive eyes on the sidelines. He was not aware that a German scout from the national team and an Afghan counterpart were present at the game.

“After the game, the coach called me over and told me that I was selected for the Kabul B team. It was so fast – everything was happening too fast. It all had happened in one month.”

Amiri was still in denial, considering all this to be a phase that would soon be over. At the time, the selection process for the national team involved playing regular games at domestic level and based on the player’s performance; they either continued or moved on. Amiri was asked to continue.

Now the question lingered: should he stay or go back to Pakistan? His intuition took him to his father for advice. Amiri vividly remembers his father’s words:

“I don’t think you are going to be selected and your school is also here [in Pakistan]. Are you not going to finish it? It depends on you. I am not saying don’t try but it depends on your hard work. If you want to play, you can stay for two or three weeks and then come.” Amiri stayed back for two weeks.

After playing a few games in the time-span, his fast-track path into the national team came even closer with a call to participate in trials for the national team.

In 2005, approximately 150 people were invited to tryout. Out of those, 30 were to be selected. This is when the reality of the matter hit Amiri.

“Now, I started taking it seriously. I called my dad to inform him. ‘Its ok, you can stay for another month’ he said. My family supported me a lot. Without which I would never have made it.”

So from 150 to 80 to 50 to 30. Amiri was selected in the top 30.

The national team was scheduled to spend ten days in Germany for a training camp. Prior to the trip, a friendly was arranged with ISAF (US Army). It was only two years prior to this that Afghanistan’s national team became fully functional, and to be a part of this game was an honour for every person involved within the football fraternity of the country. Amiri, however, did not make the cut for the game, though received a few words of wisdom from the head coach: “You are very young; you have the speed and stamina but we need someone with experience to take with us to Germany.”

For some, those words may have signaled the end of a journey, but Amiri’s attitude did not dampen. “If you do not select me, its ok. I had a good time with you guys. I had a good experience.” The coach responded by saying that he was not out of the team but on standby for the trip.

During those days, players would only be aware of their selection into the national team via the television. Amiri’s family had arrived from Pakistan on the same day. Every member of the family eagerly waited until 6pm to watch the announcement in the news.

“We were waiting for my name to come up but it did not. It was heartbreaking especially after all the hard work I put in. But I had hope,” he said in a desolate tone.

While the team travelled to Germany without him, Amiri took to the grounds practicing day and night. His resolve only grew stronger after realizing the progress he had made.

When the team had returned, he was called back to train with the them for an upcoming tournament in neighboring Tajikistan. And after a fruitful three-day practice with the team, it was time to play the waiting game all over again. The only difference being this time it was for 11pm and not 6pm – time to wait for the announcement.

• • • •

It was the first day of Eid, a day when families get together and celebrate. In Amiri’s case, there was another reason to get together. That was for the news at 11pm. To make things more compelling, the flight to Tajikstan was to leave at 1am.

First name on the list was that of the goalkeeper, the second – reserve goalkeeper, third – the last reserve goalkeeper, fourth name … Amiri. Emotions ran wild among family members who were present at home.

“My dad was the first person to jump with joy. The rest followed. I was so happy. For a father, to know his son was selected for the national team was always going to a great feeling.”

All this happened within a period of six months. The path, which started as a refugee in Karachi to a local club in Kabul, to selection in Kabul’s B team, to finally the national squad; it was a dream come true for Amiri.

Amiri will always be grateful to the support he received from his parents: “For me personally the proudest moment was when I raised the name of my father – just to think that everyone is going to look at him and say – there goes Amiri’s father. There is nothing better than that.”

His first fitting tournament with the national team ironically took him back to Karachi. The 2005 SAFF Championship was being held in Pakistan. Amiri was a star in the making.

“People knew me as a street footballer playing at amateur level who is now playing for national team. Our arrival in Karachi was being broadcasted live on Pakistan TV. As we walked out of the airport, one half of the family was anxiously waiting outside, while the other half was watching us live on TV. They could not believe it. This was the first time I ever bought a phone. Everyone was calling me saying I saw you on TV. This is when I realised I had achieved something.”

Life at national level was still tough for Afghani players as a developing football nation. The team would spend as long as 24 hours at the airport while in transit due to lack of money to stay in a hotel. Amiri was quoted in a 2013 interview with Times magazine as saying: “We slept there in the terminal, in front of bathrooms, and there were days we didn’t even have money to buy water.”

While the allure of travelling abroad as an athlete was appealing, times were still robust within the domestic scene in Afghani football. While Amiri had achieved his dream of playing professional football, he, like his teammates, would have to pay approximately $5 to buy a ball and other necessary items for the club. During those two years spent at Shoa FC, Amiri did not have any spending money; in fact, he ended up staying at his sister’s place in Kabul due to lack of funds to travel to Pakistan to see his parents. Back then, no income was coming in from the Football Federation either.

But his fortunes were to improve with the arrival of Kabul Bank Football Club. The club evidently changed the life of a footballer associated with the club, with cash flow rivaling that of a European fourth or fifth tier team. The club was collectively made up of national level players who were earning close to $400 a month, which to is still a significant sum in Afghanistan. Amiri was invited to join by the president of Kabul Bank.

“When they called me and offered $7,000 a year, I was in shock. I had never heard of that sum before.”

Though it was a positive change for Amiri, he still had an obligation with Shoa; hence the club did not allow him to move. The president of Kabul Bank wanted Amiri in the team at any cost, even if it meant paying $10,000 or $20,000 to bring him in. Amiri laughs, as he tells me: “I told him, don’t pay that money to the club, pay that to me, I will sit happily on the bench.”

That night the two presidents discussed the deal amongst themselves, ending with Amiri finally being released for a fee of $5,000. The squad of 20–25 players were being paid a handsome salary, but Amiri and a few other internationals were earning close to $3,000 a month. Amiri questioned the reasoning behind this. “He said, he believed in my potential and my future with football.”

However the young Afghan kept it humble. “I replied, if I deserve $100, you give me $100. If I deserve $1,000, you give me $1,000, it all depends on you.”

Everything about Kabul Bank was perfect as it was a team comprised of Afghanistan internationals and a few Russian players. The club was in the news for the amount that they had spent on players, which ranged from $50,000–$100,000. The football fraternity was shocked – no one had spent that sort of an amount in Afghanistan before.

The stadium was packed for the home opener. The game was tied until Kabul Bank took the lead in the dying minutes. Amiri had scored his first goal for the club in the first game of the club. He was duly rewarded when the president slipped $500 into his pocket after the game.

• • • • 

In 2010 the club travelled to India for a training camp in Mumbai with friendlies arranged against Mumbai FC, Air India and an army team. After being noticed by Air India’s head coach he was invited to play for the club in the I-league. Amiri’s initial reaction was one of shock: “Indian league – India has a league? I replied of course, I would love to come and play.” 

However due to issues surrounding the visa process, he could not make it. But in 2011, a similar opportunity came in knocking. This time the offer came through from Mumbai FC, which Amiri was grateful for. After successfully obtaining the visa, he made the trip to a new territory alone, despite the language barriers and cultural shocks. He remembers the day he landed in Mumbai: “No one came to pick me. My agent and some other guy came to pick me up but were at the other airport. I said to myself, ‘ok no problem’.”

• • • •

Amiri1In action for FC Goa, alongside André Santos, in the Indian Super League

• • • •

Two days after arriving in India, Amiri had signed a contract worth approximately $1,000 a month. A downgrade from the $4,000 per month he was earning in Afghanistan, but it was a new challenge. It was about football.

The move to Mumbai did not pacify Amiri initially as the training ground was not what he was used to, with rainwater stagnant on the pitch and an uneven ground that could potentially send you to the hospital. The team spent four months in Pune – 148 km from Mumbai – between matches and practices on a playable pitch, due to conditions in Mumbai. However, if the performances were unsatisfactory, the players would see themselves travelling back to Mumbai and training under the same unfit conditions. At one point, they would practice twice daily on that ground in Mumbai. The conditions tested Amiri’s resolve, leaving him questioning the move to India.

After a bumpy start to his life in Indian football, Amiri started enjoyed the game again. His consistent performances for Mumbai earned him the Player of the Year award from the I-League in his second season with the club. And last season, Goa-based powerhouse Dempo SC secured his services, which was a step up for him. Though he had received financially convincing offers from the Middle East, he opted to move to Dempo SC. It was largely because of the anxiety surrounding relocation at a young age. “They offered me good money. But it was difficult to move from one country to another and to adjust within. Everything was different when I moved to India – the weather, the food, the football. It took a year to adapt.”

That decision was conclusive in defining the improvements one would see in Amiri’s game today. He is particularly thankful to the guidance of current Dempo coach Arthur Papas; the reason behind him staying at the club.

“Coach Papas helped me a lot on and off the field. I had learned a lot more on how the game is played here in India in four months I spent under Papas in comparison to the last two years in the league. I feel like my football has improved significantly.”

• • • • 

The feeling of your loved ones watching you play is the biggest motivation for the Afghan. “My mother never saw me play in Afghanistan or Pakistan. She would only watch me play on TV.” It made sense, not because of restrictions on women at games, but because the stadiums were not a safe place for women to be at until a few years ago. But she did make the trip, along with his brothers, to India to watch him play in his first game for Dempo SC, a 2–1 victory against Rangdajied United.

Amiri scored in that game. He said: “I went directly to them after the game. For them it was a proud moment that their son and brother is playing professionally.”

In 2013, his dad had watched his son play in the so-called “Friendship Match” against Pakistan at the purpose built Ghazi Stadium in Kabul. This was the first meeting between the two after a gap of 36 years. Amiri recalls the conversation he had with his father, who had come to the hotel prior to the game.

“He did not want to disturb me by coming to the room so he waited in the lobby. I went down to meet him. He prayed that we would be successful, gave me his best wishes and told me that he was going to the stadium. He went to the stadium four hours before the kick-off, out of excitement. I was able to get VIP tickets for himself and some family members. He was standing in the stands.”

His mother and sister wanted to come, but were advised to stay at home because of safety issues surrounding the crowded stadium. Afghanistan ended up winning the game by three goals.

“I went and stood on the chair and hugged him. It was an opportunity of a lifetime to play in front of my dad,” he says.

To take his sentiments of that day up one notch, his father had an experience of his own while he was in the stands, “When he was cheering he heard an old guy say, I just want to be his father (referring to Amiri). My father replied that he is my son. The old man started kissing his hand. He told him not to do this, adding this is not my son alone, this is your son too and a son of Afghanistan. This topped it all.”

• • • • 

Amiri was recently part of the FC Goa franchise that participated in the highly successful inaugural season of the Indian Super League. Atlético de Kolkata eliminated FC Goa as the game went into a penalty shootout in the semi-finals. It was a bittersweet tournament for Amiri as he had missed one of the penalties that night, but the experience was unmatchable.

“It was an experience to share a dressing room with players like Pires, [André] Santos and rest of the members. One cannot ask more than to learn and be guided by great coaches like Zico and Papas.”

And his best moment in the tournament? “Making my debut for the team in place of French legend Robert Pires.”

Today, Amiri is working relentlessly on getting fit after his season was cut short due to an injury that saw him miss crucial games for the club as the Goan side were staring at relegation. But Amiri, who is currently undergoing physiotherapy sessions in London, is ready to move on if the right opportunity comes knocking. “If I get an opportunity, I would like to play in the Middle East but am open to a different experience in a different league. I will do what I can from my end to make it happen.”

He has similar ambitions for Afghanistan as well. “In Afghanistan, they have one hope that we will play in the Asian Cup one day. We were close this time but hopefully we will try to make it to the next.” Amiri was referring to the agonising loss to Palestine in the AFC Challenge Cup, which was held in the Maldives, last year. With that victory, Palestine, for the first time in its sporting history, went on to the Asian Cup, which was held in Australia earlier this year.

Football in Afghanistan has a bright future ahead of it. With FIFA’s dedication to develop the game, every element of the sport is improving; ranging from infrastructure all the way to ever-growing grassroots programmes, and a developing league system.

Away from the game, Amiri is also working towards giving back to the country by opening an academy for the less fortunate, keeping them involved in the game and away from the negative facets that lurk within an economically-deprived society. The future is bright for Afghanistan and for the refugee-turned-footballer, Zohib Islam Amiri.

By Shuaib Ahmed. Follow @footynions

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