Aria Club 2016 Tournament (28-30 May)
This past weekend I attended the H&S Nuri 5th Annual Memorial Soccer Tournament hosted by Aria Sport Club in Dublin, California. The tournament, held at Fallon Sports Complex, provided an opportunity to see some of our American, Canadian, and European-based players get time on the pitch and it offered opportunities to get to know the Afghan community in the Bay Area and meet members of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF). Lasting a total of three days, the tournament included youth age groups, a men's open division, a men's over-35 division, and a women's open division (in which our players participated). The women's open division consisted of three teams (ITIFAQ, Noor FC, and Aria Club) with a total of over 40 girls and women participating. It was a fast-paced weekend full of one event after another and observing our players in action was a great first step for our team and staff.
I arrived in Oakland on Friday evening after some delays at the airport in Dallas. Upon my arrival, Kamran Faizi of the Afghanistan Football Support Organization (AFSO), picked me up from the airport and we headed to the house of Amin Zafari of Aria Sports Club. Immediately upon arrival I was welcomed with open arms, pleasant greetings, and traditional kisses on the cheek. I met some of our European-based players for the first time, including Wida Zemarai and Nilofar Yaqoubi, and a few of the younger American players, such as Marjan Haydaree (historic leading scorer for Afghanistan WNT). I also met the AFF Vice President and former Men's National Team Coach, Yosef Kargar. The evening was full of delicious Afghan food, music, and dancing and a little bit of business with Kargar and I catching up on the South Asia Football Federation Championships and planning for the year.
Saturday morning, despite the traditional Afghan party running late into the night, the tournament started off bright and early--the first game at 8:00 am. The initial women's match consisted of the ITIFAQ team versus Noor FC (of AFSO). ITIFAQ got on the board early with goals by Afghan phenom and current Santa Clara Women's Soccer player, Hailai Arghandiwal. Noor FC fought back with a goal by local high school player, Sadaf Noori, but it wasn't enough to overcome ITIFAQ's offensive attack. Observing the game from the sideline offered an opportunity to identify players with potential to join the National Team and insight into how they're currently coached.
Immediately following the first match, Kargar presented me with an Afghanistan Football Federation scarf and formally welcomed me to the staff of AFF. It's a humbling experience to be so quickly accepted and supported by the Federation. Kargar and other members of AFF have gone out of their way to champion our staff and team, and their efforts and dedication toward the women's game are significant.
The second match of the women's tournament was between ITIFAQ and Aria Club and was a hard fought battle. Again, Hailai Arghandiwal was a dominating force with assists from one of the younger players in the tournament, Mika Sayfurahman. Aria Club featured our European-based players, one Canadian, and Hajar Abulfazil (traveling from Kabul). It also included several other American-based players interested in being evaluated for the National Team. Goalkeeper, Wida Zemarai played a solid game between the pipes for Aria Club and was impressive across the board despite the score line.
Upon the final whistle of the second match, the European players, Hajar, and I traveled to Iman TV Station to do a live sports show with Dr. Subhan Hatifie. The show, broadcast globally, was even watched by Nilofar's parents who stayed up until 2:00 am local time in Holland to catch it. During the show, we discussed the 2016 efforts, the historical development of the team, gave background information on some of the players, and the obstacles we have yet to overcome. You can watch the show (it's mostly in Dari) here: https://youtu.be/YNGc9ARD2xE
Day Two of the tournament saw only one women's fixture with Aria Club taking on Noor FC. Both teams fought it out but Aria Club won, advancing to the Monday finals against ITIFAQ. Following the match, Kargar and I took an opportunity to compare names and numbers of players who may have what it takes to play at the international level. We were both pleasantly surprised that out of the 40+ women and girls, we'd both identified the same players for involvement in the National Team program. We agreed that after our upcoming trip in Amsterdam, Kelly, Khalida, and I would finalize our roster and get it to him by the end of June. Later that evening, I spoke for about an hour on the phone with Kelly after she returned to Hong Kong from China for the weekend. We agreed on the timeline and branched off on all sorts of tangents like FIFA Rankings, our 3-Year Plan, and how to properly pronounce player names. The pressure is on!! :-)
Finally, Monday arrived and I had to prepare for my flight back to Houston. In the morning, Kamran and Hashmat Haidari from AFSO came and picked me up from my hotel and took me to Starbucks for a little bit of shop talk about our upcoming event in September. We discussed fundraising efforts and how the community in the Bay Area can contribute, how we'd like the AFSO tournament to tentatively be arranged to give the Afghanistan WNT the best competition possible in preparation for SAFF, and some of the logistical considerations for the arrival and accommodation of the team. Both Aria Sports Club and AFSO have been incredibly helpful and support of our efforts and they should both be commended for their commitment to growing the women's side.
After our business meeting, we headed down to the fields for one last time. I was able to say goodbye to Kargar and Hajar and wish her luck ahead of their final that day. ITIFAQ wound up winning the tournament with Aria Club coming in second. Prior to my departure the women of Aria Club and their Board of Directors presented me with an Outstanding Achievement Award thanking me for my acceptance of the Assistant Coaching position. It was such a warm gesture and totally unexpected. I'll cherish that award for a very long time.
I made it home last night around midnight and dove into bed. I was back up and at the grind of building the team with texts from Khalida around 6 am. She's such a good friend! We look forward to providing you with more updates as we get ready to travel to Amsterdam in two weeks. Make sure to keep your eyes on Twitter, Instagram, and our Facebook page for the daily updates!
SAFF Championship Update
The South Asia Football Federation has announced that the SAFF Women's Championship will now be played in November 2016 instead of September. Tentatively, the Afghanistan WNT will attend the AFSO event from 1-8 September in Dublin, CA before returning home. We will then gather in Hong Kong in the days/weeks immediately preceding SAFF for our final training camp before departing for India. This will change our budget and travel arrangements slightly but thanks to the Houston Dash hooking us up with an amazing travel agent, we aren't too worried about it! We're learning more and more as a staff to stay flexible!