Amiri’s remarkable journey from raw teen to Afghanistan icon
- Zohib Islam Amiri is Afghanistan’s most-capped international
- Defender boasts a 15-year international career on his resume
- Afghan icon hope to help his country to maiden AFC Asian Cup qualification
For many, attending a relative’s wedding is a pleasant experience. For Afghan international Zohib Islam Amiri, however, it was more than just a fond memory. His presence at a cousin’s wedding a decade and half ago proved pivotal in kick-starting what would be an illustrious footballing career.
The time was March, 2005 when 15-year-old Amiri and his parents – then refugees in Pakistan – returned to the Afghanistan capital Kabul for a cousin’s wedding. He was then an adoring fan of Manchester United rising star Cristiano Ronaldo, while his cousin was playing with local club Shoa FC.
“Looking back, it still seems as if it happened yesterday,” the 30-year-old Afghanistan and Gokulam Kerala FC defender told FIFA.com. “During the wedding my cousin’s coach was also present, which I didn’t know.
“I took time to play football for a while with my cousin and the manager watched us. When we finished playing, he came over asking me ‘Do you want to join our club?’ So as a teenager that is how I started in professional football.”
If the signing by Shoa FC was unexpected for Amiri, a bigger shock was yet to come.
“I was given the No9 jersey for my first game on behalf of the club,” he said. “Some national team staff were watching us. After the game, they gave me a call-up for a national team camp.
“It was not easy for a 15-year-old like me to compete against the big lads at senior level. But I kept working hard. Luckily, I made the 30-man line-up and then the final 23-men final squad representing our country.”
Growing with the national team
It was indeed a dream come true for Amiri, whose football ambitions took root even during the Taliban rule. “During that period there was no [recreational] activity and we were even not allowed to watch TV,” he recalled. “The only thing I could do was to go to the stadium to watch football matches.
“It was a difficult time for us. As a kid I could only enjoy the day by watching and playing football with neighbouring friends. In a time of bomb-blasts and chaos, you had only today and you didn’t think of the next day.”
Despite the adversity, Amiri kept playing football. After fleeing to Pakistan, he joined a youth academy in Karachi. “It was during those days I began dreaming of playing for my country one day – only I didn’t expect that everything would come so quickly.”
As it turned out, Amiri’s career took off with the national team. He featured for Afghanistan at the 2005 SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) Championship and made his international debut against Maldives aged just 15 years, 9 months and 18 days – which remains a national record.
And eight years on, he was made the captain of the Afghanistan team for the 2013 SAFF Championship. Amiri played a standout role throughout, skippering his side to their maiden regional title.
“That year was the peak of my career, and my life. I let out a cry when I learned the news [being appointed captain]. Playing for my country was already a dream come true, let alone playing as a leader of the national team.
“And we won the 2013 SAFF Championship. Never before had an Afghanistan team achieved that so we were proud. It was fantastic experiences for us. From the first day of the tournament to the last, everyone was working hard and together we made history.”
Amiri continued to feature prominently for the national team in the ensuing years, and remains a central figure the team’s 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar™ qualification campaign. Now with 52 international appearances, he is Afghanistan’s all-time most-capped player.
At club level, he is a trail-blazer and became the first home-grown Afghan player to play overseas when he joined India’s Mumbai in 2011. He has since made a name there, plying his trade with a series of Indian clubs and becoming a fan-favourite figure in his adopted land.
World Cup hopes
With four points from five outings, Afghanistan are trailing leaders Qatar and Oman in a World Cup qualifying group which also features India and Bangladesh. With three games left, he is hoping that they can revive their fortunes with good results and achieve maiden AFC Asian qualification.
“We didn’t have a good start in the qualifying opener against Qatar, but we rallied and played well against India. We played quite well in the second leg against the Qataris. We had chances to win but we missed a penalty and lost 1-0.
“The dream is always to represent my country at the World Cup. But if it doesn’t materialise I hope I can at least play in the next Asian Cup in 2023. I am in my 30’s but I want to play for Afghanistan as long as possible.”