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Turn pro or keep your head down? An American in Afghanistan wrestles with a life choice: Nick Pugliese has a chance to play at the top level but his safety is an issue, writes Amy Lawrence
[February 06, 2014]

Turn pro or keep your head down? An American in Afghanistan wrestles with a life choice: Nick Pugliese has a chance to play at the top level but his safety is an issue, writes Amy Lawrence

(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) As offers go, the chance to play professional football in Afghanistan is not the kind of proposition that can be taken lightly. For one young American, mulling it over leaves him wrestling between the attractions and complexities. He knows the environment well, having played for Ferozi in the Kabul Premier League last season, a small club that played its matches in front a few hundred spectators. The option of taking a considerable step up to the national championship is at once tempting, fascinating and precarious. It would mean drawing more attention to himself. That is not always the wisest move for a westerner in an unpredictable land.

If Nick Pugliese, a 23-year-old son of Rochester, New York, decides to return to this footballing outpost, come the spring he will join a multitude of Afghan hopefuls with their hearts set on a remarkable chance. The Afghan Premier League, which was formed two years ago, is connected to a reality TV show called Maidan-e-Sabz, which translates as Green Field. There are eight clubs, one from each region of Afghanistan, and filming begins with open trials to make it into one of the squads. The league is owned by Moby, the largest media company in the country, and the programme is backed by round the clock promotion on television and radio. There is a series of 16 programmes following the trials, watched by the kind of numbers seldom seen before for original content. The winners get to play for real once the squads are whittled down and ready to compete, in a league with all the games broadcast.

"The league put them up in this mansion in the centre of Kabul with 100 or so players living there together, sleeping in dorm style set-ups," Pugliese says. "The salary is nine dollars a day. A lot of them were losing money as they had to give up their jobs to travel to Kabul to take part. It is a dream for a lot of these kids, they think the league can identify them for the national team, which it did for a handful in the first season. People are willing to sacrifice to play professional football." The game is followed passionately in Afghanistan. Pugliese describes interest in the Premier League and La Liga as "massive". One of his friends made a striking observation about daily divisions: "We used to sit in our college classroom based on ethnicity. The Pashtun over here, the Tajik over there. Now we sit split by who is Real Madrid and who is Barcelona." It was his love of the game that opened up a new world to Pugliese. What began as a deliberate search for work in an emerging country to see what that experience would teach him turned into something more profound. Working for Roshan, the country's main telecoms company, he had to sneak away from security to find a kickabout with amateur teams. When he was offered the chance to play for Ferozi FC in the Kabul League, he handed in his notice and his life took an extraordinary diversion. He became the team's defensive midfielder and they won the cup.

Through sport he was able to connect with Afghans in a way he did not anticipate. It began through the international language of football while he was still trying to get to grips with the local dialect - a lot could be expressed with two feet, a ball, gestures, expressions and humour. "That is how it started. I met people through football I never would have otherwise. Soccer opened the door." Preconceptions were challenged and he felt he was able to show that Americans can be "slightly more real and normal" than some of his compatriots in Kabul. "Structurally they are aloof in the city. They are always behind walls or in armoured cars," Pugliese says.

His new workplace was the Ghazi Stadium, the focal point for football in Kabul and the place where Ferozi trained three times a week and played their matches. The group were close-knit. "Our coach would have us come over to his house on game day four hours before kick-off. His wife would cook us this soup - a meat broth with vegetables - we would hang out and watch music videos and just chit chat. Our coach is friends with all of us on Facebook. That's pretty much how relationships work in Afghanistan, pretty informal." The Ferozi salary came in at $300 (pounds 184) a month. Some players subsidised their income with other work. "For a number, their family owned shops and they would help out in the shop. Another owned a rudimentary advertising business. If you asked them if they wanted jobs, across the board they would probably say yes. The money in Afghan football is neither voluminous nor dependable. But it is very difficult to find jobs as a young male in Kabul.

"Finances in Afghan families are usually handled collectively, so the lines are blurry around financial independence. If you brought home $300 a month you would give it to the family pool. You might get to keep 50 or so for personal spending. To rent a room and get food if you were living by yourself, it's not enough. With each family member contributing something that's how families get by. And that's how these kids can dedicate their whole time to soccer." With snow in Kabul, it is the close season. Back in the US, Pugliese ponders a return to the Green Field. Will he try out for next season? He has a couple of clubs in mind and has been encouraged to go for it but it's complicated. "Raising profile is not a good thing from a safety perspective," he says. From a purely sporting point of view, though, his passion for Afghan football beats on. "It is difficult," he muses, "to let go." Captions: The New Yorker Nick Pugliese, third from left, back row, lines up with Ferozi, who play in the Kabul Premier League (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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