In football, there are occasional moments when everything appears to happen in slow motion. One such instance arrived in Afghanistan’s match against India in the South Asian Football Federation Cup final, when Sandjar Ahmadi hit a shot from the edge of the penalty area. Time stood still as Afghans, both at home and in the stadium, willed Ahmadi’s effort into the net.

And in it flew, barely grazing the underside of the crossbar on its way, causing both the Afghan No11 and the country as a whole to erupt into celebrations. President Hamid Karsai was even moved to declare a public holiday following Afghanistan’s 2-0 triumph. Yet none of it might ever have happened had the goalscorer not made a hugely courageous decision prior to the tournament.

Ahmadi had just accepted an apprenticeship in Hamburg and had only been in his new job for a couple of weeks. When the invitation to join up with the Afghanistan national team arrived, he followed his head rather than his heart in declining the offer. However, Ahmadi, a passionate footballer who had dreamed of becoming a professional ever since childhood, was left restless by the decision to turn his country down. Shortly before the opening game at the tournament in Kathmandu, Nepal, Ahmadi had a change of heart that was to have far-reaching consequences: “Two days before the match I decided to join the national team, come what may.”

A good decision
Ahmadi arrived just in time for the first matchday, but not even he would have dared to dream what was to happen next. The 21-year-old struck in the semi-final against hosts Nepal and again in the final to help lead rank outsiders Afghanistan to an unexpected triumph. Having played for fifth division outfit TuS Dassendorf on one of Hamburg's amateur pitches in front of barely 500 spectators just days earlier, some 30,000 fans now heralded the forward as a hero in the Ghazi national stadium in his homeland after securing the country's greatest ever footballing success. 

“People went absolutely crazy when we took the trophy home," said Ahmadi, still clearly overwhelmed by the reaction in Afghanistan, which has included frequent marriage proposals. "Everyone was so happy and the streets were filled with people. Thousands chanted my name, they wanted to touch and kiss me. I couldn't walk down the street by myself or without a police escort."

Yet Ahmadi was in for a rude awakening upon his return to Germany, where he lost his recently acquired job. Although still basking in the afterglow of his experiences with the national team, he was also increasingly concerned about his future. Nevertheless, just a few days later a different set of emotions took over entirely. Ahmadi’s delightful lob in the final, as well as his matchwinning goal in the semi-final against Nepal, had caught the attention of Indian first division side Mumbai FC, who secured the striker’s signature. Ahmadi’s long-awaited chance to move into the world of paid professional football had finally arrived.

Dream come true
After some initial teething problems due to difficulties with a visa, the Kabul native began his I-League adventure. That he had landed in a vastly different environment became clear as soon as he stepped off the plane. “The weather here isn’t like it is in Germany, that’s something I still have to get used to,” Ahmadi said.

The 18-time international has eight goals to his name so far, and now shares a comfortable flat with national team captain Haroon Amiri. “The fact that Haroon’s here is a big help,” said the Mumbai FC no.9. “It was a tough decision to move here, so far away from my home and my family, but he made it a lot easier.”

Just a few training sessions into his career in India, Ahmadi cannot hide his delight at the friendly reception he has had, even if football plays second fiddle to India’s national sport cricket. “Football here is not like it is in Europe,” said Ahmadi, “but there are still games where the stadiums are full and I can really live my dream of being a professional player.”

Given his path into the game so far, there are sure to be plenty more exciting twists before Ahmadi decides to hang up his boots for good.