It’s not unusual for American soccer players to go abroad to chase dreams of playing professionally. But you might say Nicholas Pugliese, a 24-year-old from Rochester, New York, took things to an extreme by signing with Ferozi FC, a team based in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Pugliese played soccer at Williams College, but he didn’t originally go to Kabul with the goal of pursuing a professional soccer career. After graduating, he took a job for Roshan Telecommunications, Afghanistan’s leading telecom company. He worked on developing a mobile banking application, and, later, did a stint in the corporate strategy department. At that point, he played soccer recreationally in his spare time.
After nine months on the job, however, Pugliese said he grew frustrated with what he saw as restrictive company security policies. “My movements and activities were limited and monitored,” he explained. He wanted more freedom to explore Kabul, and soccer offered an opportunity to do so. The turning point came when an Afghan colleague helped arrange a tryout for Pugliese with Ferozi, which plays in Kabul Premier League, a circuit comprising only teams based in the Afghan capital. “When I heard that I would be offered a contract with Ferozi FC, I left my job to commit myself to soccer full time,” he said.
Financially, the move made little sense: Pugliese’s base salary for Ferozi was $300 per month. He also moved into a small, team-affiliated guest house, getting a room next to two teammates. “Between these two benefits, it was just enough to live on,” he said. “For my teammates, $300 per month is not a lot. Most Afghans live with their families most of their lives, so their $300 is pooled with the income from other family members. The family can survive when they pool their money, but $300 per month for an individual is not a lot. None of that money can be saved.”
To earn some extra money, Pugliese worked in the publicity department of the Afghan Premier League, Afghanistan’s top-flight circuit. Launched in 2012, the league comprises eight teams, each from a different region of Afghanistan.
Given that Taliban militants remain active in Kabul, the Afghan capital can be a very dangerous place for foreigners, especially those who venture out on their own. But the hazards didn’t keep Pugliese confined to his guest house. Determined to live the same kind of life as his Afghan teammates, he rode a bicycle around Kabul, shopped for his own groceries, walked the streets and learned Dari, the chief language spoken in Kabul. It helped that Kabul city league matches weren’t televised, thus greatly reducing the chances that he might be recognized by fans on the streets of Kabul.
“I made sure I had good friends who I could trust, and I did not place trust in those I had the least doubt about,” he said. “I traveled around the city often with Afghan friends who were able to navigate the city and interactions better than I could, and they made sure I got to where I needed to be safely. Also, I learned the local language (Dari), which greatly helped my situational awareness.”
“Afghan culture is very gracious and welcoming, and there were endless people who were willing to go out of their way to make sure I felt comfortable,” he continued. “If any problem arose, I was able to call these friends for help.”
The quality of play on Kabul Premier League teams was roughly level to that of a good American college squad, Pugliese reported. “Afghan players are usually technically gifted – agile and quick -- but team components of the game are not emphasized,” he said. “Players play more as individuals and less as a team. Also, because of a lack of fitness and weight training, players are not muscular. I am 5-foot, 10 inches tall and 180 pounds, but still I was one of the strongest on the field.”
“There are only a few good coaches in Kabul. Most coaches are not well trained and do not have experience coaching/playing outside of Kabul,” he added.
Ferozi FC enjoyed plenty of success with Pugliese among the starting 11, playing as a defensive midfielder. In the spring of 2013, the team was in the Kabul Cup Tournament and at the conclusion of the season in the fall, it made the league championship match, only to lose 1-0. Pugliese’s lone goal during the season was well timed, coming during the league semi-final game in a penalty shootout that vaulted his club into the championship match.
After Ferozi completed its season, Pugliese returned to the United States. He was invited to try out last spring for the Kabul club in the Afghan Premier League, but he chose not to travel back to Kabul, deeming the security situation too dicey amid a tumultuous presidential election campaign. The preliminary results of the June 14 run-off vote between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai aren’t due until late July. Already, however, allegations of vote-rigging are casting a long shadow over the electoral process.
Pugliese would like to continue his soccer career in Afghanistan, but wonders whether he’ll have another opportunity. “I am currently living in New York and am not sure when I will return to Kabul,” he said.
Emanuele Giulianelli is a freelance sports reporter based in Italy.