An American’s Afghan odyssey

Nick Pugliese had a choice. He could keep his corporate job with a leading telecom firm or play professional football. It would seem a simple decision for a young man with a passion for the game, but the circumstances were far from normal, and Pugliese was a long way from home. He was in Kabul, Afghanistan, and he’s American.

“Emotionally I was all in, but rationally it took me a little longer,” the 23-year-old Pugliese, born and raised in Rochester, New York, told FIFA.com. “Professional soccer sounded really exciting, but I wondered, 'Am I being stupid?'”

The pull to try his luck on the pitch was too much to resist. “When would I ever have this opportunity again?” he asked rhetorically, before recounting his time playing for Ferozi FC of Kabul’s Premier League. His new job paid around $300 USD per month, but what it brought him was priceless. “The office job was fine, but you lived in a compound,” he said, touching on the disenchantment he felt at being cut off from the city of Kabul and its people, which was one of the main reasons he came to such a far-flung and troubled port of call after earning a degree in philosophy and political science from a top college in Massachusetts, where he also stood out as a ball-winning midfielder.

A closer look
“I woke up, ate and slept all in the confines of the compound. It had a lovely courtyard, a kitchen and a gym – all the comforts of home, but you couldn’t really leave,” he said, describing the tight security detail for foreign workers in Kabul - the capital of a country at near-constant war for three decades, including a 13-year USA-led occupation, considered one of the world’s most dangerous destinations.

“You could only visit approved places and there was a strict curfew. You couldn’t wander around, you couldn’t go to the central market.” Then there was a pause. “I couldn’t even play pick-up soccer,” Pugliese explained.

Eventually he found a footballing outlet through a casual company team. “The technical level was varied,” he said. “But it was a chance to play.” Pugliese met a young Afghan who stood out among the company men and the two gravitated toward each other the way good players do on a field. The teenager held a low-paying job at the company, but he also played for Ferozi FC. A trial was arranged for Pugliese at the club and he was offered a place and a chance to become the first American to play professionally in Afghanistan. The club’s training facilities were outside the security perimeter and the ultimatum came down from his company. Work or play?

Professional soccer sounded really exciting, but I wondered, 'Am I being stupid?'
American Nick Pugliese on whether or not to play

Suddenly freed, the young American was on his own in a city rocked by regular violence. His mother asked if he was crazy when he called home, and it was a valid question. In the space of one day, Pugliese’s whole life changed. His relationship with Kabul and Afghanistan became intimate – all because of football.

Living at the club with his team-mates, some who were members of the full Afghan national team, he spent his days in a park playing futsal with the locals. He began experimenting with the language. He communicated with a combination of English and Dari. “They had a great sense of humour about it. I sounded like an idiot, but the fact that we played together and watched La Liga and EPL games together, meant that soccer was something we could build off of.” Pugliese became known at the park and, in a profound way, he was accepted.

He stood out on the pitch for Ferozi too. “I brought a little toughness to the team,” he said, noting the focus on technique that rules the Afghan game. “Their style comes out of street soccer, so you have a lot of dribblers.” It didn’t matter that he was American, it only mattered that he could play. Ability was currency and a key to a locked door. Pugliese played two abbreviated seasons with Ferozi in the space of nine months. They won the Kabul Cup at Ghazi Stadium, where the Taliban once held their infamous public executions. “Winning a championship is just like scoring a goal, and there’s nothing like it,” he said of the celebrations.

A larger, smaller world
Photos of Pugliese during his time in Kabul show a young man smiling, engaged in the work of making his world simultaneously larger and smaller. “I was a long way from my family, and I didn’t have a support network,” he said. “My team-mates and coaches quickly became that; it was a home away from home.”

“He’s [Nick] a lovely and social person and he is always welcome in my home. He’s like one of the family,” said the smiling Ferozi coach, Eilyas Ahmad Monocher, during a recent ESPN documentary.

Football opened a world for Pugliese that normally would have remained closed. “It brings people from different backgrounds together, people who would never cross paths otherwise,” he said. “These paths cross through soccer – social, ethnic, all of them – and my story is just an extreme example,” he said, a whimsical smile in his voice, speaking from his hometown in New York.

Pugliese will not be going back. His months playing in Kabul were enough. “The higher profile I have now might make things more dangerous,” he admitted. He has, however, brought some Kabul home with him to America. He is hard at work editing a documentary about Afghan street soccer. “I saw the role that the game plays in their lives and it’s amazing,” he said, seemingly unable – maybe unwilling – to let go of his adventure, or Kabul’s hidden charms, without a fight.