Migration, Talent, and Challenges: Afghanistan’s European-Based Footballers in FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifiers

From left: Yama Sherzad, Ovays Azizi, Amin Nabizada (Image: Players’ individual instagram handles and Watford FC website)

For the South Asian countries, their native footballers playing in European clubs has always been an area of interest. In India, one talks about Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) like Yan Dhanda, and Michael Chopra. In Bangladesh, Leicester City speculation on midfielder Hamza Chowdhury’s joining the Bangladesh National Team has made several headlines. From India, Bhaichung Bhutia played for Bury FC (Currently Bury AFC) in League Two in England and Sunil Chhetri had a short stint with Sporting Lisbon B team.

During the 2023 SAFF Championship, RevSportz did an article focusing on the Pakistan national team as to how most of their players are part of club football in Europe. As the Indian football is team is set to take on Afghanistan in the FIFA World Cup 2026 Qualifiers on March 22 in Saudi Arabia, a similar situation has arisen. The Afghanistan team is filled with footballers who ply their trade in European clubs.

To begin with, Afghan goalkeeper, Ovays Azizi plays for the Danish side, Hillerod. They were recently promoted to the top tier. Defender Mosawer Ahadi plays HIFK Football, a side that competes in the Finnish 2nd division.

Attacking midfielder, Mustafa Azadzoy is plying his trade in Germany. He plays for the 4th division side Atlas Delmenhorst. Another midfielder, Taufee Skandari, is currently playing for the Faroese top tier club, B36 Torshavn.

Yama Sherzad, the 23-year-old attacking midfielder, plays for a Swiss side based out of Bern, FC Breitenrain Bern, who are on the verge of a promotion to the 3rd division. Forward Belal Arezou, is another player competing in Norway. His club IF Trauma plays in the Norwegian 4th division.

Noticed closely, all the players are either playing in lower division club football in Europe, mainly in the Scandinavian belt. Some others are part of Eastern Asia — Indonesia and Maldives. Haroon Amiri, who is currently playing in Canada, is a known name in Indian football. He had long stints with top Indian sides like Dempo and Real Kashmir in the past.

Does that mean the Afghanistan side is filled with experienced players who rub shoulders with European footballers throughout the year? The scenario is that most of these players have migrated to these countries as refugees and are started playing there in the academy system.

For example, goalkeeper Azizi was born in Afghanistan and lost his father and grandparents during the Afghan Civil War. Seeking safety, his mother and four siblings sought refuge in Iran. In 2001, Azizi was granted refugee status in Denmark, where he also pursued a career in occupational therapy alongside football.

Credit: Afghanistan Football Federation Twitter/X

Defender Mosawer Ahadi was born in Mazar-E-Sharif in Afghanistan but grew up in Finland. He has also represented the Finland U17 and U18 national sides, another story of early migration. Yama, the attacking medio, originally from Afghanistan, escaped to Switzerland with his family in 2006. He commenced his football journey in 2009 at the academies of clubs located in the canton of Bern, before transitioning to the Thun academy in 2011.

Belal Arezou was born in Afghanistan but fled to Norway as a refugee in his youth and started playing for Senja, a Norwegian club’s academy side.

When the Pakistan national team participated in the SAFF 2023, one noticed having players from European clubs didn’t help much as most of the players didn’t play together and lacked coordination. It is expected to be a similar situation here also. Around 18-20 players boycotted the Afghanistan national team back in November 2023, due to corruption in the federation and the national league and many of then have not revoked the boycott.

It is shocking to see that the national team is filled with players who are not a part of the national league. The Afghanistan Champions League, formerly the Afghan Premier League, is the national league. It comprises 12 clubs, but the focus on the national league is negligible when forming the national side.

For coach Ashley Westwood, it is a hard task to form a team of scattered footballers from across different parts of Europe. It is believed the Stadium in Abha City is supposed to give them a physical advantage. A notable thing to mention is that the Afghan side mostly comprises young talent, mostly below 30.

Sharif Mukhammad (Image: AFF)

The two senior candidates, Zohaib Amiri and Sharif Mukhammad are expected to add some valuable inputs about Indian football. Both these players have a proven track record in Indian football with the latter winning back-to-back I-Leagues with Gokulam Kerala.

But with a much-organised squad, coach Igor Stimac is expected to pull off an away win in Saudi Arabia and move a step closer to the third round of the FIFA 2026 World Cup Qualifiers.

Special mention of 16-year-old Afghan winger Amin Nabizada, who was newly added to Afghanistan’s squad. A rising star, Amin has impressed at Watford reserves with seven goals and previously showcased talent at Brentford. He will be an exciting prospect to watch out for, if the former Bengaluru FC gaffer plays him on the day.

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