Afghanistan are currently by far the most improved national team in South Asia and certainly one of the most improved nations in international football overall, as they were the biggest movers in the FIFA Rankings in March, when they jumped up 48 spots to 141. This month that position improved by two more spots.
India’s dominance in the sub-continent will certainly be challenged by Afghanistan in the near future but it is also very refreshing to see some Afghan internationals ply their trade in the I-League.
The versatile Zohib Islam Amiri has been at Mumbai FC since last season and star striker Balal Arezou became the second Afghanistan international to feature in the I-League after signing for league leaders Churchill Brothers in the winter transfer window.
Interestingly, Arezou was playing professionally in Norway before this, but accepted the move to India as he wanted to gain more experience.
“As a footballer I wanted to move up in my career and experience different levels. It’s been great playing for Churchill Brothers so far,” Arezou told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.
Arezou has had to work really hard over the years to become a professional footballer, so it wasn’t important for him whether his next destination would be in Asia or Europe.
“I was born in Kabul but immigrated to Iran. Back then, I had to work for my family and didn’t have the opportunity to play football. When I and my family reached Norway, I had time to concentrate more on my football career,” he reflected.
The 24-year-old, who is still getting used to the contrast in the weather of Norway and Goa, had caught the eye of several Indian clubs after impressing in the 2011 SAFF Championship, which was held in India, with Afghanistan losing the final against the hosts.
“After that tournament, I have had offers from Mumbai FC, United Sikkim and Air India,” the striker revealed.
Arezou, who was signed by Churchill Brothers to replace Lebanon international Akram Moghrabi, is yet to open his account for the Goan club but had a great outing for Afghanistan in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers as he scored twice in three games to help his nation qualify for Maldives 2014. But Arezou still rates the 2011 SAFF Cup as his country’s best showing.
“Yes, it was a proud moment because Afghanistan won their group for the first time in their football history but for me the best tournament for the nation was the 2011 SAFF Championship where I scored against Nepal and Afghanistan reached the final,” he commented.
Arezou has hailed the rapid rise in the FIFA Rankings as a ‘big success’ for the country as a whole, but played down the possibility of overtaking India as the new dominant force in South Asia.
“I cannot say which country will be the new dominant force as you can never predict what happens next in football but I must say that Afghanistan has progressed a lot,” he stated.
Afghanistan will certainly be among the favourites to win the SAFF Cup to be held later this year in Nepal, and Arezou is hopeful of winning their maiden crown. The presence of several foreign-based and foreign-born players like Ahmad Arash Hatifie and Mohammad Mashriqi, who is currently with I-League second division outfit Bhowanipore, has been one of the big reasons behind Afghanistan’s improvement.
“I think it’s best to think broadly because no matter where we live we will still be called Afghans or Indians, and everyone has the passion to do something for their country in their own way whether its India or Afghanistan. I think it’s a good policy and everyone should have a chance,” he opined.
Despite Afghanistan’s success on the pitch, the war-ravaged nation still plays their home matches in neutral venues, but Arezou remains optimistic for a change in that scenario.
“The situation for a sportsperson in Afghanistan is a little hard than in other countries but I must say that it’s getting a lot better than before. Afghanistan is progressing in sports more than ever before. I do want to play an international match in Afghanistan soil in the near future hopefully,” he concluded.