When Indians talk about foreign footballers, they usually refer to Nigerians, Ghanaians or Brazilians. But the 26-year-old Afghan Zohib Islam Amiri has managed to change this and win the hearts of fans.
Amiri was recently voted 'Player of the Year' by Indian football fans, thus becoming the first Afghan national ever to win such an award. The international football won ahead of strong competitors such as Lenny Rodrigues (Churchill Brothers, India) and Lalrindika Ralte (East Bengal Club, India).
At this year's FPAI Indian Football Awards ceremony in Mumbai Amiri said he was honored to receive the prize which he described as "a great achievement for me and also for Afghanistan." The 26-year-old even charmed the audience speaking Hindi and called Mumbai and India his home.
A shooting star
But when Amiri (main picture center) started playing for Mumbai FC in the top tier I-league a couple of seasons ago, many were surprised, since most clubs try to sign players from Japan or Australia, making footballers from every other Asian nation an exception.
Amiri was born on May 2, 1987 in the Afghan capital Kabul. He started playing football at the age of twelve at the Agha Khan Sports Academy in neighboring Pakistan before returning to his homeland after the end of the Taliban rule.
His career kicked off with Shoa FC and was given a boost when he was selected to the Afghan Under-19 team. From there he went on to kick for the one of the country's best teams, Kabul Bank FC, which offered players like Amiri much-needed financial stability in the war-torn country.
Fulfilling a dream
In late 2011, the team travelled to Mumbai for a series of friendly matches. That is where Mumbai FC coach Khalid Jamil spotted the talented defender and signed Amiri as the first professional Afghan footballer in the Indian I-League.
At the time Amiri knew little about Mumbai and Indian football, but he learned quickly. "I got to know everything about Indian football and I tried to make myself a part of this league. For me joining Mumbai FC was like a dream come true."
But Amiri doesn't seem to fit the profile of the typical foreign footballer who comes, plays and goes. He has adapted to life in Mumbai and calls the megacity his second home. "I have made a lot of friends here. I would even consider some of them as family for they've become really close to me."
Will Amiri stay in India?
With his talent and charisma, he has even won the hearts of long-time followers of the club, such as 77-year-old Manuel Fernández. "Honestly, I was sceptical about Amiri, but he has proven to be a delight to watch for Mumbai FC. He became one of our own as well as a key player within the young squad," he said.
But Amiri recently confirmed reports he will be leaving the team soon. "My first option is to stay and continue to play in India, but I am also looking at options in Oman and Bahrain," he said.