An American in Afghanistan: How Soccer Breached the Culture Gap

The stories that emerge from Afghanistan to be told to an American audience are rarely characterized as uplifting. Not when suicide bombers, the potential for a resurgence of al Qaeda, the presidential election, and war weariness dominate headlines. But a fresh perspective about the bonding power of sports is coming from an unlikely source: 23-year old American Nick Pugliese.

Pugliese was the subject of an ESPN “SportsCenter Featured” segment in February, which told the story of Pugliese’s journey from recent college graduate to the first American to play professional soccer in Afghanistan. After taking a job with a telecommunications company in Afghanistan, Pugliese looked for a way to cope with being away from the familiar. Thousands of miles away from family, friends, and home, he turned to soccer, which he had played for years.

He started playing on the company team and found he felt at home when he returned to the pitch. His on-field skills caught Ferozi FC head coach Eilyas Ahmad Manocher’s eye. Following a trial run with the team, Pugliese was offered a position, which to him was an invitation to join a soccer family. He agreed, which meant trading his job and company compound living quarters for a pair of cleats and residential complex.

He started chronicling his journey in a blog. Writing to explain why he was giving up with job, decent salary, and security, he said the game is “cathartic” and that he could not stop playing. “It allows you to express what needs to be expressed,” Pugliese wrote.

When Pugliese began playing for Ferozi FC, part of Kabul’s Premier League, he viewed it as the opportunity of a lifetime. It was his way of fitting in. But at the core of his story is a reminder that even after events that create cultural tension — an invasion, a war — basic human elements can link the most unlikely of people.

In the ESPN segment, Pugliese said no one ever attempted to deter him from playing on the Kabul team. “So many people could have stood in my way and said: ‘No. I don’t think it is a good idea that you are here. This is an Afghan team.’ And no one said a thing. It was just like, ‘Yeah, come on and play.’ That simple.” He made friends with his teammates and the people he met playing futsal in the local park. “We don’t treat each other like a foreigner or an Afghan,” his friend Sayed Shahab Shah said on the segment. “We’re like brothers.”

The focus so often falls on cynical headlines that simple, everyday stories are overlooked. Pugliese is a reminder that with an open mind, countries, peoples, and cultures don’t need to be closed off from each other. Misconceptions can be disbanded, and a greater understanding can be gained when people look for similar interests rather than differences.

“I think that’s the biggest theme of my time here,” Pugliese said. “The more you’re part of the community, the more you’re looked after, and the less of an outsider you seem.”

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