"A good year is determined by its spring." This Afghan saying seems to ring true for the South Asians, who look set to enjoy a new and prosperous era for the year to come following their undefeated run in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifying in March.
It's a saying that in-form striker Balal Arezou firmly believes to be true. Arguably the best-ever goal-getter Afghanistan have produced, the 24-year-old was instrumental throughout their qualifying campaign, scoring twice as his country booked their return to Asia’s second-tier competition finals, having missed out on the previous two editions.
"I was really happy that once again God gave me a chance to do something for my beloved country," Arezou told FIFA.com in a recent interview. "It wasn't an easy tournament but with the joint efforts from our team, we earned our wins. I will do my best so that we can continue our good form and achieve new success."
His nation's all-time top-scorer with nine goals from ten caps, Arezou lived up to his tag as Afghanistan’s brightest star, twice scoring the match winner in a pair of 1-0 victories over Sri Lanka and Mongolia. A 1-1 draw with hosts Laos to follow was enough to finish as the top of their group and progress to next March's continental finals in Maldives.
“I am glad to do my part with my team,” continued Arezou, who made his international debut in a 1-1 draw against Palestine during Asia’s qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ two years ago. “Since I joined the national team, Afghanistan have climbed 48 places in the FIFA ranking. This is a feat which we have never achieved before. I hope to make new progress with my team and do the people proud.”
Born and raised in Afghanistan, Arezou inherited a passion for the game from his father, though he gained his first experience in football with a series of local clubs in Norway after his family emigrated.
"I started playing football at the age of 14 with Senja in Norway," Arezou reflected. "My family loves football and I wouldn't have become who I am today had it not been for their support. I was practising hard every day with my brothers Samir and Sayeed, along with my friends and team-mates, so I made consistent progress as I grew up."
After his stint with Senja, Arezou moved on within Norway to play for Grane. Following a short spell with Arendal, he started his professional career with Asker in 2009. It was with Asker that he truly made his name as a goal-scoring prodigy, notching 22 goals in 100 appearances and helping his side to earn promotion to the top division for the first time in half a century.
Keen to restore their place among Asia’s best footballing countries, having finished fourth-place at the 1951 Asian Games, Arezou’s talents did not go unnoticed for long by the Afghan Football Federation (AFF). He made a dream debut with the U-23 side at the 2010 South Asian Games, helping Afghanistan win silver and scoring six times to finish as the tournament’s top-scorer.
He would continue his prolific form at the senior level, with another six-goal haul in the following year’s South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship where Afghanistan reached the final, but lost to hosts India 4-0.
"The national team means a lot to me. It is a way to give our people moments of happiness. When we play, people get united and pray for the country's victory. It is what I can do for my nation. I love Afghanistan and I want to help our country reach a higher level in football," added Arezou, who moved to Indian giants Churchill Brothers at the start of this season.
Football in Afghanistan has seen marked improved recently, through the combination of AFF’s sustained efforts and FIFA's Goal Programme. Various infrastructure including the FA headquarters, a technical centre and a football training pitch have been built, while their first domestic championship, the Afghan Premier League, commenced last year.
"Presently, football is the favourite sport among people of all ages in Afghanistan. They enjoy watching the national team play, and they support us to get better results. We would love to get better chances of development than before," Arezou said.
Future competitions awaiting Arezou and Afghanistan are September’s SAFF Championship in Nepal, followed by the Challenge Cup in Maldives next March, and he has set his sights high for both tournaments: “I want to help our team to greater success in Nepal, and reach the second round in the Asian tournament in Maldives,” he concluded.