Kings of the New City
Nick Pugliese’s Afghan Odyssey
There is an age-old tale with universal appeal that resonates with people from all times and all cultures. It is of the young man who leaves home to explore the world. It is a journey steeped in romance—the young man with a bundle of hope thrown over his shoulder, leaves the safe confines of home in search of opportunity and experience. Driven by curiosity, he takes the first step towards an unknown destination with the desire not only to find out what’s out there, but ultimately, to find out what he himself is made of.
Over the past half century, this journey has increasingly unfolded in one direction—from less-developed to more developed countries. The tide carries hopefuls from countries where opportunities are bleak at best—the Honduras, El Salvadors, Syrias, and Afghanistans of this world—to shiny, sanitized destinations in North America, Europe, and Australia. But not all traffic is moving towards the industrialized first world.
Meet Nick Pugliese!
Nick was born in Rochester, New York in 1990 and grew up playing soccer on the manicured green fields of suburban America. He attended Williams College in Massachusetts where he studied Political Science and Philosophy with a concentration in Central Asia and Afghanistan. While in college, he continued playing soccer and anchored the university’s team as starting Central Midfielder.
After graduating in 2012, Nick was presented with an opportunity to explore the parts of the world he had been studying in class. He was offered an internship in Kabul with Roshan Telecom, a telecommunications company building cell-phone infrastructure in Afghanistan.
Once settled in Kabul, however, Nick realized that this was hardly the opportunity he had imagined. Instead of mingling with the local population and getting to know Afghan culture, he spent most of his time sequestered in the company’s high-security compound along with the other Westerners who worked for Roshan. Frustrated with the restrictive security that kept him isolated from the exotic bustle of Kabul, he found solace in outings to Shari-naw (“New City”) a small park in central Kabul where he played in pickup games on a small concrete court that had been converted to a soccer pitch.
With years of collegiate soccer experience under his belt, he established himself as a to-be-watched players in the park and drew the attention of Ferozi F.C., one of the city’s professional soccer teams. In time, he came to know many of the regulars at the park and became friends with local players who aspired to play for the Afghan national team.
His soccer excursions to Shari-naw, however, had thrown a wrench into his relationship with Roshan Telecom who didn’t think it was safe for Nick to be playing soccer out in the city. Now he was faced with an ultimatum: employment without soccer or soccer without employment. He chose the latter. After nine months with the company, Nick settled, along with two teammates, into an apartment provided by the team in a building that also housed a restaurant.
He would spend another nine months playing soccer in Kabul. In May 2013, in front of thousands of cheering fans at Ghazi Stadium, Nick Pugliese, the only American to have played professional soccer in Afghanistan, helped Ferozi F.C. win the city-wide championship. During his time in Afghanistan, Nick filmed a documentary about his experience playing soccer in the war-torn country. “Kings of the New City,” which won top prize at the Williamstown Film Festival in 2013, tells the story of two of Nick’s teammates who are on the verge of making the Afghan national team. The film is a touching testimony to the power of hope in the face of seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. You can watch the documentary in its entirety here.
Nick returned home right before Christmas, 2013. He had spent eighteen months on a journey of self-discovery and had gained a new understanding of the lives of other young men—maybe not too different from himself—who continue to chase their dreams even in the most adverse circumstances.
For the next six years, Nick worked as a journalist, most recently for WHYY, an NPR affiliate in Philadelphia. The stint in journalism, however, turned out to be just another stage in his journey. Frustrated by the limitations of being a third-person observer as a journalist, Nick yearned for first-person involvement, especially with the issues he had come to experience in Afghanistan. In 2020, Nick took yet another dramatic step on his odyssey. On August 24, 2020, Nick Pugliese attended his first class at Yale University’s School of Law, with an eye on International Law and Human Rights. It is the opening page to a new chapter in a long tale that is still being written.
SASSAN TABATABAI is Guest Editor of MizanPop.