Najem spoke to ExtraTime Radio host Andrew Wiebe this week in a wide-ranging interview about the experience, his family’s history with the national team and the pride his father, who immigrated to New Jersey in 1989, felt seeing his son pull on the colors in Kabul.
Below is a condensed version of the interview. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. You can listen to the full interview via the embedded player or by subscribing to ExtraTime Radio.
WIEBE: I want to start at the beginning. This all started via Facebook message?
NAJEM: I got a Facebook message from one of the coaches of an Afghan amateur team in California. First seeing it, I was like, "Oh maybe he's just inviting me to an Afghan tournament in California or something because that stuff happens in the community. But I opened it, and he just introduced himself and he said, "I've seen you play and I think you are capable of helping the national team. If you're interested, let me know and then I could put you in touch with somebody from the staff." I was obviously a little skeptical, but I said why not, let's try it. I talked to my dad and he said, "Yeah, it won't hurt,” so I reached back out to him. I thanked him and in the next two days I was having an open conversation with the head coach of the national team (Anoush Dastgir).
WIEBE: Who's 28 years old, who just got hired, who is trying to rebuild honestly the team itself. It's been five years since there was a home game and you're being called up for a friendly that's not even — I did the math here — it was less than a month away. How did the conversations with the head coach go?
NAJEM: He was he was part of the national team. He was a player. He had experience playing in the Dutch first and second division, but he had a pretty bad injury and he had to retire early. He got into coaching right away. He was explaining they've always had their eyes on my brother and me, but their program wasn't ready to go ahead and reach out to players from around the world.
They didn't have the funds to bring guys in and out from different countries. He was saying, “We want to take that next step. We've got sponsorships. We can now play different countries, travel everywhere.” He was just laying it all out there. He didn't pressure me into anything, but he just wanted to gauge my interest on the matter.
He even said that this game is coming up pretty quickly. It's not a FIFA date game, so I don't want to force you into any decisions. I know it's in Afghanistan. I don't know if you're skeptical about going there, but think about it. Take your time. You don't even have to come to this, but know that we would like you to play for us at some point, whether it's this game or in October. I took it all in and I talked to my parents and everything.
Even after that first conversation, a week in, I was like, "Do I want to go? Do I not want to go?" But then I sat down and thought about it. I was like, “How many opportunities am I going to have to go play in Afghanistan, to visit where so much of my family has been?” There's obviously the risk involved. As I told my parents before, what kind of person would I be if I told them, "Yeah, I want to play for your national team, but I don't want to step foot in your country. It's just too dangerous." I put that aside and said it's going to be a great experience, and I'm really glad I did it. It's something I'll never forget.
WIEBE: Off you go. I'm curious about your dad Ahmed’s reaction. He left Afghanistan in 1989, if what I've read is correct, which is at the end of one of many periods of upheaval in Afghan history at the end of the Soviet War.
What was his reaction to this call-up, this opportunity for not just you but for your brother as well? It's Adam, but it's also David and unfortunately he had an injury.
NAJEM: He's super proud. He's always been the advocate to push yourself and continue working. You never know what can happen from these opportunities. He's our biggest fan. He's been extremely helpful, and just extremely excited with this process. He's all over the Afghan soccer news, getting all these pictures, sending screenshots to my brother and me. He's just so happy for us. It will truly be a dream come true when me and my brother are able to play together and put that Afghan jersey on and represent the country.
Adam Najem (#5) started Afghanistan's first home game in five years. | Philadelphia Union / Afghan Football Federation
WIEBE: Let's get to the game itself. It looked like an incredible event, marking the 99th anniversary of independence. It's a national holiday. It's the first match Afghanistan has hosted in five years, since 2013 against Pakistan, and the country is one of nations FIFA currently does not allow to host matches. What was the experience like?
NAJEM: We landed and I've never met any of the guys on the team or the coaches. I actually had a second or third cousin on the team. Benjamin (Ali Benjamin Nadjem), and he plays in Germany. His mom actually called my dad a week before the flight. Oh, Benjamin is going to be there. And my dad called me right away and said you'll know someone there. You guys obviously haven't met, but you know you're related, so it'll just click right away. That made me feel a little better. As soon as I got to the airport, I look for someone that's pretty similar looking to me. I saw him, and we just clicked right away.
It's like that feeling when you get a new team, like people are skeptical at first. They don't know what kind of person you are or how you play, but then after the first session and guys see what you are and the type of person you are then right away it's a national team so everyone has that family-oriented feeling and everyone wants the best for each other. Just to help the team perform better. After the first day, it was like I'd been there all along. It was truly great.
We were there for a week, so you got to cram as much as you can in to prepare for a game. We had film sessions and one or two training sessions a day. Then game day came. There were a few nerves. Before we went to the locker room, we went straight to the field and that was 5,000, 6,000 people in the stands ready two-and-a-half, three hours before the game. That's a moment I won't forget. It was just chills, really. The flags, everyone's screaming, whistling, cheering as we did a few laps around the field just thanking everybody for coming. Right from there, I was like alright let's play. You get that energy and you kind of lose the nervousness. It's time to just play.
WIEBE: The game was broadcast to the whole country. You're standing there, taking this all in: the crowd, colorful costumes, wigs, all the colors of the flag, men, women, children. It looked like one of those events that the country had been waiting for five years because it had been. How did it feel to be a part of that event? It's more than a game at that point, yeah?
NAJEM: I think I think we all knew it was more than a game at that point. It's going to play in a country that hasn't been able to feel that sense of pride, feel that sense of energy all the time. It's a country of war, you know?
Any sense of happiness, any sense of joy you could bring not just to the 10,000 people that were there but a whole country. Everyone was watching. Everyone wanted to see what we could do as a team and obviously the performances of the singers, the dancers, everyone was super excited to be there. Just standing there and taking that all in was ... it's breathtaking. It was just something I've never experienced before. There's probably not many times in my life where I'll be able to experience something like that.
Najem prepares to take a throw-in in his Afghanistan debut. | Philadelphia Union / Afghan Football Federation
WIEBE: You started on the right side of a diamond midfield. You were also on the field with your cousin. How was the game itself? I know it was nil-nil, but ultimately I think the result is kind of secondary here to the occasion. How did you experience the actual 90 minutes?
NAJEM: I came into camp and I didn't know what my involvement was going to be. I just came into it open minded, just ready to take on anything. A couple of days into the camp, I was pretty sure I was going to be on the field. I didn't know I was going to play 89, 90 minutes, but after the first touch you kind of forget about everything. It's too loud in that stadium to even hear yourself think. You just go out there and try things.
That's the type of player I am. If I'm just out there and just enjoying the game and playing, then everything just becomes a little easier for me. There were a few plays where things went off, did well and decided to help the team and create some chances. Late in the game, my cousin and I had a nice combination play. We could have scored on that. That was pretty awesome. My first international game, being able to play around 89, 90 minutes was more than I could have ever imagined.
WIEBE: You mentioned your cousin, but this is a three-generation thing. You go back and your father's great uncle played the '50s, your father's cousins played the '80s. This is a Najem tradition. You guys are just in the national team.
NAJEM: It's awesome. I had some time with my cousin. I sat down and talked to him and he brought up how our great uncle is looking down on us and is super proud. He always wanted this. He's always wanted the Najem family to continue the tradition of playing on the national team. When he brought that up, that's just another reason it's more than soccer. It goes beyond what we're doing right now. How many people have sacrificed, how many people have done so much just for us to get to this stage. That's the point when I was like it's really not just about me being here playing, it's a lot more.
WIEBE: What's next with Afghanistan for you and your brother?
NAJEM: I actually just recently received an email. I'll be heading to Myanmar [in October].
Definitely looking forward to that. You know I think these next couple of camps will become easier and easier as I become more familiar with the guys and the coaches. My brother is getting closer and closer to being fully healthy. That will be even more exciting just to have him with me, being able to play with him again.
We've had a few battles here and there with him at the Rowdies, with him at Red Bull II. I think it's time for us to play together and show what we can do together, so that'll be fun. Obviously here with the Union still looking forward to that playoff run and helping the guys any way I can and then going to Myanmar and continuing my international experience.