Afghanistan’s Soccer Captain: Meet the Humble Hero of a War-Torn Nation

Without enough money to buy spare jerseys, or even pay for hotels, the Afghan team have somehow emerged as regional champions

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Mujib Mashal

Afghan soccer captain Islam Amiri, center in red jersey, returns to his home neighborhood of Char-qala, in Kabul, in the wake of the national squad's victory in the South Asia Football Federation Championship

In the little room, barely 3 m by 4 m, 48 men sit wherever they can: on the floor, on the windowsill and on a lone bed tucked into the corner. A modest dwelling in Kabul’s Char-qala shantytown, it seems far too small for its tenant — Afghanistan’s newfound national hero.

Islam Amiri, 26, captained the Afghan football team to its first international title, the South Asia Football Federation Championship, after the squad defeated India 2-0 last week in Nepal. The triumph, coming just days after the country commemorated its annual Martyrs’ Week, gave a nation struggling to emerge from decades of war something to celebrate away from the battlefield. Amiri’s dance of celebration — a happy shuffle, with his tattooed hands moving up and down his side — endeared him to Afghans.

“Tell us stories of the games,” an elderly man asks Amiri, who, unable to enter his own front room, hangs around at the entrance, wearing his sky blue No. 3 practice jersey.

“Well, you watched it all on TV,” Amiri responds with a smile. They all laugh.

The festivities began soon after the game ended, amid celebratory gunshots. In scenes rare for the Afghan capital, soccer fans in the city’s western Darulaman quarter stopped cars, asked drivers to blare music as loudly as possible and then danced in the streets. Only when they had strutted their fill did they let traffic resume.

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The next morning, Afghan President Hamid Karzai welcomed the players at the airport, from where they were led to a national stadium filled with tens of thousands of cheering supporters. The ride normally takes 15 minutes, but jubilant crowds slowed the convoy’s journey to three and a half hours.

“The coach and I were in an armored vehicle and people were all over it. They even cracked the back window — an armored window,” Amiri says in disbelief. “Everyone wanted to get their hands on the trophy.”

The son of an ethnic Hazara shopkeeper, Amiri grew up playing his football in the narrow alleys of Char-qala, first using rolled-up fabric stitched into a ball, and later worn-out footballs bought with money chipped in by several neighborhood kids. They smashed a lot of windows. “We got a beating when we would come home at night,” he tells TIME. During the period of Taliban rule, he attended matches at the local stadium where the militants would conduct public executions at the center of the pitch during half time.

Amiri credits his success to coincidence and luck. In 2005, he took part in a minor-league game as a guest player and was spotted by Kabul football officials, who recruited him to the provincial B team. Just months later, he was asked to join the national squad.

(MORE: The Tashkeel Diaries: How a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer Turned a Bunch of Afghan Kids Into a National Basketball Team)

Luck brought Amiri his foreign experience too. When his local club in Kabul — owned by Khalil Ferozi, one of the founders of the scandal-ridden Kabul Bank — emerged as league victors in 2011, the team were sent to India for a short vacation. They ended up playing a last-minute friendly with a local club. Officials from the Mumbai Football Club were in the audience and were so impressed with Amiri’s play they signed him right away, as a left-back. In the 2012 season, he was promoted to Mumbai captain and was chosen as the Fans’ Player of the Year.

His greatest triumphs, however, have come from representing his country. The South Asia Football Federation victory is testament to the determination of an Afghan team that has had to make do with few resources. As recently as 2009, Amiri recalls that his team — which he has captained since 2010 — would spend as long as 48 hours in transit terminals because they lacked the money to get a hotel.

“We slept there in the terminal, in front of bathrooms, and there were days we didn’t even have money to buy water,” he says.

The players only had one change of uniform. When, at the end of matches the opposition teams would try to exchange jerseys, as is custom, the Afghan players would apologize and say they did not have replacements. Even today, despite a successful two years in the international arena, the only compensation the players get when traveling is a daily travel stipend of roughly $50, which is paid months late. When practicing at home, they get a daily stipend of 35 afghanis — the equivalent of 70 cents.

With the India win, however, promises of monetary rewards and donations have come in from across the country — much to the relief of a soccer captain unable to find space in his own home.

“Well, with some of that money, you can at least make your house bigger,” one of his guests tells him.

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