American Nick Pugliese breaking barriers by playing in Afghanistan

Thursday June 27th, 2013

Nick Pugliese receives his medal after winning the Kabul Cup with Ferozi FC in May.
Courtesy of Nick Pugliese

"Today has been an up-and-down day in Kabul. I had the privilege of chasing around a football this morning, then was chasing around bureaucrats and their signatures the whole afternoon. During a break from document-hunting, I was told a really outstanding love story, which I will share with you one day soon. Then, a suicide bomb went off in the city."
-- Nick Pugliese, U.S. pro, on his blog "Nick Plays Football in Kabul"

The only American in Afghanistan's pro soccer league -- hell, the only foreigner, as far as he knows -- has a tale as unlikely as it is remarkable. A little more than one year ago, Nick Pugliese was graduating from Williams College, where he'd been the captain of the soccer team. In the year since, he has taken a job with a telecommunications firm in Kabul; snuck away from his own security detail to play for an Afghan soccer team; quit his desk job to make less money playing pro soccer; and won Afghanistan's version of the FA Cup knockout tournament.

Not a bad adventure coming out of college.

Why is Pugliese, a defensive midfielder, putting himself in potential danger to play soccer for $300 a month (plus room and board) for Ferozi FC? For one, he loves the game. But there's more to it than that.

"I'm using it as a way to explore the types of lives that young men are living in Kabul, which is probably different from what you see portrayed in the day-to-day media," says Pugliese, a Rochester, N.Y., native who had a 3.9 GPA in political science and philosophy at Williams. "The interesting question to me is why I've been accepted as a member of the community in spite of or because of my status as an American. Through these soccer teammates, I've become part of the community."

Soccer has melted the social barriers for Pugliese, allowing him to get to know his teammates and their families. They've found common ground through their use of basic English and Dari, the local language, and without fail through the game itself.

"It speaks to the power of: Can you play or not? Can you help my team win? If so, you're valued," Pugliese says. "That's been one of the most positive things I've experienced here. If you're valued on a soccer field, that opens so many opportunities to be seen as valuable as a person and to actually form friendships. Soccer is the link. I think my trying to be as humorous as possible and laughing at things is the second link. Then you spend time together, and it's easy to find things to relate over, even if you can't communicate it through words."

Pugliese is on Twitter, and his blog is a fascinating window into his new world, well-written and honest.

All this time we watch re-runs of last week's best European football matches or a channel playing music videos of the most popular songs in Afghanistan. When Justin Bieber's "Beauty and a Beat" came on one day, everyone's gaze turned to me as if I was supposed to answer for the music tastes of all Americans. I shrugged as if to say, "Yeah, I'm too cool for this kind of music." Their expressions also turned cool, as if to say, "We rather enjoy this song."
-- Pugliese's blog

Pugliese's path to Ferozi FC wasn't exactly a direct one. Upon graduation, he was interested in working for a private company in an emerging market, and through a Williams connection he joined a successful telecom company called Roshan in Afghanistan in June 2012. Due to the tight security and insurance restrictions at his company, Pugliese wasn't allowed to play soccer during his first six months in the country.

But he missed the sport, and he convinced his security minders to let him play in an amateur league once every other week for three months. Still, when he asked to train at Ghazi Stadium, the epicenter of pro soccer in Kabul, his security squad refused. "Too open," they said.

In March, one of Pugliese's amateur-league teammates, who also plays on the Under-19 national team and for Ferozi FC, introduced him to the Ferozi coach. Pugliese began sneaking away from his company residence to train with Ferozi and felt liberated playing the game he loves. Ferozi offered him a pro contract in mid-April, and he resigned from his position at Roshan, which wouldn't let him do both jobs.

"Every day is an affirmation that I made the right choice," says Pugliese, who moved into a different residential complex down the hall from two of his Ferozi teammates. "With the restrictive living conditions at my old employer, I just felt really boxed in. When they told me I effectively had to stop playing football, that was the breaking point."

"The opportunity to become a part of this community and be treated as family, to be in people's homes, to cook lunch together, to hang out and see the city in the company of my teammates: That's so well worth the change," he continues. "And to play football on a daily basis. My Afghan friends thought I was crazy not to keep my job. They saw it as going from a job with more pay to a job with less pay. But I'm playing for the love of the game."

The Afghan Premier League won't start again until October, but Pugliese played for Ferozi in the Kabul Cup in May, a tournament involving two groups of seven pro teams. Ferozi qualified for the semifinals and won that game, setting up a final against an Afghan military team. Pugliese started the game but was subbed out before a wild finish in which Ferozi erased deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 before equalizing at 3-3 in stoppage time and winning the Kabul Cup on penalties.

"Winning that tournament was huge," said Pugliese when asked to name his favorite moments so far on his Afghan adventure. But there have been others, like the park where he regularly goes to play pickup ball. "On the first day I played well and left with three phone numbers of other kids there," he said. "Now I'm a regular at this field. I show up and greet half the people there. I'm automatically welcomed onto the field. We go out for lunch afterward, and Afghans are such that they never let me pay for my meals."

Is there risk living and playing in Kabul as an American? Of course. "You can never totally mitigate risk here," he says. "The two biggest threats are first, being in the wrong place at the wrong time for a suicide attack. The way you mitigate that is by not being in high-profile areas around embassies or around ministries which tend to be in one district. The second threat is the risk of kidnap. If there was something that kept me up at night, that would be it. But on a day-to-day basis, I feel quite safe."

It also helps that Pugliese wears a scarf around the city like most men, the better to deal with Kabul's pollution. He is careful about not having the same routines and movements around the city all the time, though he admits his parents worry about him.

Before he leaves Afghanistan in November, Pugliese is also planning to do some documentary work with a camera and translated interviews of his teammates. "The idea with the interpreter is to help me pursue some more conceptual conversations with my teammates," he says. "If other teammates are thinking of immigrating, for example, but don't speak any English, I'd like to talk about that. How did they get involved [in soccer] in the first place? Do they feel this is for love or money?"

It's a question Pugliese explores often himself -- and one of the many reasons you should continue following his journey on his blog as the Ultimate Yank Abroad pushes forward in Afghanistan.

I feel a biting nervousness. I'm now in Kabul to excel at football. To my teammates, I am how I play. I also feel a quiet excitement. I think about the improbability of me being right here, right now.
-- Pugliese's blog

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