For Afghanistan, a lot was on the line.
The country wants to be removed from the list of places banned by FIFA from hosting matches.
Additionally, the opponent, Palestine, had beaten Afghanistan in three consecutive matches, including the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and the 2014 Asia Challenge Cup.
And, for the general populace of the country, soccer can provide a realm for both escape and unification during times of tumult and upheaval.
“We arrived at the stadium about two-and-a-half hours before the game,” Adam Najem said this week after returning from Kabul, where he received his first international cap starting in midfield for the Lions of Khurasan, “And there was already six or seven thousand people out there. When we stepped out, even before warm-ups, everyone was just cheering, whistling. We took laps around the field and it was incredible. Gave me the chills. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Although this was the first time he set foot in Afghanistan, the importance of soccer in his father’s homeland was always apparent through the outsized role it occupied in the family’s life. Before leaving for the match, Najem spoke of how his father, Ahmed, scoured Afghan football news for information to pass on to his son. Ahmed still plays soccer multiple times each week, and Adam knew that accepting the call to play for Afghanistan would be a momentous event both for himself and for many others in his world.
“I think most of my family watched the game,” Najem said this week. “:They were really happy, they sent me all these text messages, pictures from the game and everything. They were really excited for me, really happy that I was able to represent them and the country, and hopefully I’ll get many more.”
Najem plays as a central attacker for the Union and Bethlehem Steel, but he was deployed on the right side of a diamond midfield for the national team. It was fitting that the young midfielder, who came up playing for the United States in youth tournaments, would be slightly out of his comfort zone on the pitch. After all, the entire experience of traveling to Kabul is likely to take one out of their comfort zone.
But Najem said he accepted the risks of journeying into a city that remains under the regular threat of violence after years of war. “Everybody from the camp went in knowing there was a risk involved,” he said evenly. “Everyone knew that everything could happen at any moment, but that’s life.
“I’m glad I took the risk of seeing the country and being a part of that. But we stayed in a great hotel with a lot of security. We were getting police, military escorts going to and from the hotel to practice. Our safety was great. They really took care of us. Anything could happen anywhere, but we were very safe.”
The one unexpected thing that did happen? A visit from a relative.
“Both of us had a visit from an uncle-type guy,” Najem recounted, speaking of himself and his cousin, who was also called up to play. “I didn’t expect him to show up, I didn’t know much about him. But we reconnected, we shared some memories. It was really nice talking to him.”
Now that Najem is back in the States and back with the Union, he can continue to work toward earning MLS minutes. But he is clear that the international appearance has changed nothing about how he approaches his soccer each day. “Whether I got this call-up or not, I was going to continue working, continue pushing myself. That’s just who I am. I love this game too much to just sit back and take not doing anything,” Najem said emphatically. There can be no doubt that, both for himself and for Afghanistan, Najem is doing something important. “It’s definitely a country that hasn’t been able to have the feelings of joy and happiness for a while,” he said after returning. “Any sense of joy and happiness we could bring to them was amazing, and it meant a lot. If we can continue bringing that sense to fans and people of the country, it’ll only get better.”