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The Engine Never Stops: Mustafa Zazai’s Tale From Afghan Refugee to Afghan International

Mustafa Zazai is well-known for being a true midfield engine in Cambodia and he possesses one of the highest work rates for a midfielder in the Southeast Asian region. The German-Afghan player has come a long way since his humble beginnings and I had the pleasure of helping with some aspects of his past. This is his tale.

Beginnings in Germany

Born in Afghanistan, Zazai fled to Germany as a refugee when he was just 6 years old. As you can imagine, the difference between Kabul and Hamburg could not be any more different. He was truly like a fish out of water. Yet, despite the stark differences between both cities, his love for football remained unchanged and the beautiful game proved to be a critical factor in his assimilation into his new home.

Image Credits: Mustafa Zazai

“In 2000, we moved to Germany and in the beginning, it was hard to adapt to a new way of life,” explains the 29-year-old. “We were refugees and starting afresh in a new country where I did not know German, so it was challenging to make friends at first. Thankfully, I joined a small football village team there. It was through playing football that I managed to forge new friendships. It wasn’t long before I grasped the German language and after that, everything was much easier. So I can say football helped me adapt to the new country and life.”

After spells with the youth teams of Hamburger SV and SC Concordia von 1907, he joined VfB Lübeck where he was quickly promoted to the side’s first team. After an impressive showing in the 2012/13 season, he earned a move to FC St. Pauli II and remained there for the next two years.

Image Courtesy of Mustafa Zazai

It was during this time with the second team that the Afghanistan national team came knocking on Zazai’s door. It was an important milestone for the midfield engine, who made his debut days after his 21st birthday during the AFC Challenge Cup in Maldives in 2014.

After the tournament, he would go on to become a mainstay in the national team and in the subsequent years, sign with German lower division sides TSG Neustrelitz and Lüneburger SK Hansa. However, Zazai felt that his career was beginning to grow stale and he was no longer content with playing in the lower leagues.

Feeling At Home In Southeast Asia

Image Credits: Mustafa Zazai

“I needed a change,” describes Zazai. “I wanted to try something new and needed to refresh my career. I was searching for possible destinations before I was offered a contract by Thai League 3 outfit Chachoengsao Hi-Tek FC. Following this, I made a move to Phrae United FC, who were then in T3 as well. In 2019, I joined Kelantan and played in the Malaysia Premier League for half a season before making the switch to Phnom Penh Crown for the second half of the year. I’ve been in Cambodia ever since, playing for Visakha for the 2020 and 2021 seasons and then signing with Boeung Ket in 2022. I’ve had quite a vibrant experience in Southeast Asia and I don’t regret my decision to move to this part of the world!”

Obviously, there are stark differences between the football he played in Germany and the football played in Southeast Asia. Besides the humidity and tropical weather, Zazai does concede that German football is indeed faster, more tactical, and physically more challenging. On the other hand, Southeast Asian players have better technique and ball control than their European counterparts. Nevertheless, Zazai has no intentions of leaving the region because he loves it here.

“I like the lifestyle,” mentions Zazai. “It’s more chill compared to Europe and Europeans are mostly stressed all the time. From a footballing perspective, I believe the level across the leagues I’ve played in are very similar. I daresay that the top 5 Cambodian teams could compete in the Thai or Malaysian leagues. Football in Cambodia grew a lot in the past few years. I have been playing in Cambodia for the last 4 seasons and I have personally seen the development. I’m sure in the future Football in Cambodia will develop even more. That being said, the fan culture in Malaysia is unparalleled. The supporters who turn up come in numbers and support there is bigger than in Thailand or Cambodia. The Malaysian fans are a bit ‘crazier’ – which is not bad. Good match-day atmospheres motivate footballers to do even better.”

Seeing What The Future Holds

Image Credits: Boeung Ket

While his aim is to remain in Cambodia or more broadly Southeast Asia, Zazai is in search of a new adventure after being released from Boeung Ket. With the 2023-2024 Cambodian Premier League slated to begin in August, many clubs have released their foreign personnel as part of cost-saving measures. Nevertheless, Zazai is confident he is able to secure another move for the time being before a potential return to Boeung Ket before the league starts on August 4th later this year.

However, there are bigger question marks on Zazai’s future with the Afghanistan National Team. After a military offensive by the Taliban in the middle of 2021 that culminated in their takeover of the state, Afghanistan has undergone radical shifts and the future of Afghanistan football is up in the air.

“It is difficult to know what lies ahead for Afghanistan football,” explains Zazai. “What’s most important is that in Afghanistan, there needs to be peace. This country has suffered so much in the past decades and the people are tired of war. So, I do sincerely hope that there will be peace. Once there is sustained peace, only then can football and the whole sports scene develop. There are several talented footballers in Afghanistan but unfortunately, they lack the necessary support to develop properly.”

It may be some time before we see Zazai wear the Afghanistan National Team shirt, but he has many fond memories while turning out for his nation.

“I have many favourite moments with the national team,” recalls the Afghan international. “Our First World Cup qualifying win in Afghanistan football history against Cambodia has to be up there. The fixture was held in Cambodia in front of 60.000 fans. It was a night to remember. Another one was a match in Afghanistan against Palestine in 2018 in Kabul. Because of the civil war, Afghanistan couldn’t host any games for many years. So this game was a huge thing for the country and the football of Afghanistan. It was an amazing atmosphere and the stadium was packed. Afghan people love football and they are so passionate about the sport.”

Image Credits: Boeung Ket FC

It will be an interesting period for Zazai who looks ahead with much optimism. For him, he has only one goal in mind and that is to continue playing the beautiful game at the highest level possible for as long as he can.

Featured Image Credits: Boeung Ket FC

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