Mansur Faqiryar sits comfortably in a restaurant in Oldenburg, Germany, enjoying the peace and quiet before taking a slow stroll through the town centre. And while the Afghanistan national goalkeeper can enjoy public places in his adopted country without being recognised or mobbed, the same cannot be said for his homeland since the historic events of 2013.
The shot-stopper, who fled to Germany with his parents back in 1987, became a national hero last summer when his performances in goal inspired Afghanistan to a sensational triumph at the 2013 South Asia Football Federation Cup. “It’s a real football fairytale. You couldn't script it better if it was a Hollywood movie. If you look at how events unfolded, it's like it was meant to be. As a man of faith, I believe in this school of thought," said Faqiryar of the last few months in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
Much has changed since the historic success. The Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared the day of the final a national holiday and crowds lined the streets to welcome the conquering heroes on their return. Some 40,000 fans travelled to the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul to cheer their new stars, with the journey to the venue almost developing into a victory parade. “These are moments that you don’t experience often,” recalled Faqiryar fondly, even if the term hero does not sit well with him. “I have a different definition of hero.”
Student and footballer
The 28-year-old plays his domestic football between the sticks for VfB Oldenburg in the regional league, where he’s also the team captain and regularly keeps goal in front of less than a thousand fans. At the same time he studies industrial engineering in Bremen and is working on his dissertation, which he has had to postpone since the triumph.
“I’ve been in Afghanistan a lot in the last few months because I now have a certain level of responsibility towards youngsters and children. I’ve seen the role football can play and I’ve noticed that the conditions for young people to learn and play football are simply not in place,” he said. “So it’s now my objective to set up a football academy in Kabul.”
The goalkeeper wants to make his mark on a country that has been badly affected by crises in recent times. Victory at the South Asia Football Federation Cup was a step in the right direction. The Lions of Khurasan had travelled to Nepal as outsiders, with the level of excitement back home increasing with each passing game. “Things really got started before the semi-final. Nobody thought we could beat the hosts Nepal. Even the Nepali President was watching from the stands in a sold-out stadium. Our President called our coach after we'd won and that’s when we first realised that we were becoming the focus of more and more attention.”
Everyone wants to score goals
Faqiryar became a symbol of the success when he saved two penalties in a matter of seconds in the semi-final, with the referee having demanded a retake of the first spot-kick. He was also voted the best player at the tournament in Nepal.
All the problems that are rampant within the country were all cast to one side and for the first time everybody was cheering for Afghanistan.
“It’s somewhat surprising given that people want to play football to score goals, especially in countries like Afghanistan. They all want to be forwards, so it’s very flattering to receive the award as a goalkeeper. I just tried to do my bit for the team. The two saved penalties in the semi-final were definitely the highlight, the moment of glory.”
The euphoria generated by Afghanistan’s achievements in Nepal certainly exceeded all expectations. “On the evening after the final we were sitting in the hotel and saw what was happening back home. Watching all the people dancing out in the streets was the first real 'wow' moment. Then we got off the plane and the country’s most important officials were there to greet us, hundreds of thousands of people were celebrating in the streets and they accompanied us the whole way to the stadium. We needed over two hours for a journey that should have taken ten minutes. It was crazy.”
High hopes and expectations
“I still have lots of contact with Afghanistan and realise how important this success was for our country from talking to politicians, businessmen or just ordinary people who all have fond memories of last year’s success. It’s boosted everyone's self-esteem and enhanced the pride they have in their country. Moreover, people have a greater self-awareness: for the first time everyone sees themselves as Afghans. All the problems that are rampant within the country, particularly those between the different ethnic groups, were all cast to one side and for the first time everybody was cheering for Afghanistan. You can really sense the spirit of optimism in the country at the moment.”
The days when he could visit a restaurant or wander around the shops as a relative unknown are certainly a thing of the past in Afghanistan. It’s a sacrifice Faqiryar is happy to make, though. “It just shows how diverse life can be. I love being here in Germany, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest if nobody recognises me here. But it’s equally great to be in Afghanistan. If people recognise me they associate it with something positive. That’s important to me.”
What the future has in store for football in Afghanistan remains unclear. “It’s developing slowly. At the moment we mustn't set any objectives that the people are unable to fulfil and that are utopian. The Afghan mentality is similar to the Latin countries: very emotional, with 100 per cent passion and commitment. That’s helpful when you want to reach new objectives. It could lead to quick progress, but it doesn't necessarily mean that things will be successful in the end. I believe that we've already taken huge strides forward in footballing terms and that we’ll continue to do so, but we shouldn't hope for things that aren't achievable.”
Nevertheless, the success last autumn has served to raise hopes and expectations, and that is already more than the country could have possibly envisaged just a matter of months ago.