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Philadelphia Union’s Adam Najem earns first call-up to Afghanistan national team

Adam Najem was admittedly skeptical about a Facebook message he received from an Afghan coach based in California. 

After taking the chance of responding to the message about his game, the Philadelphia Union midfielder was put in touch with the technical staff of the Afghanistan national team. 

On Monday, Najem left Philadelphia to meet up with the Afghan squad in Dubai before flying to training camp in Kabul ahead of a friendly against Palestine on August 19. 

“It was actually a Facebook message from an Afghan coach from California (who got in touch),” Najem told ProSoccerUSA. “He sent me a message on Facebook saying he’s seen me play and believes I can help the national team. He wanted to put me in contact with someone from the Afghan staff. I was a little skeptical because of the Facebook message because you never know where those things can go.” 

“But I responded and in the next day or two I was speaking to the head coach of the Afghan national team,” Najem said. “It was a good conversation and I felt comfortable with what he was saying and it was definitely exciting to hear about the things they’re going through and the steps they’re taking to become a competitive team in the world. Here I am going to Dubai and then to Afghanistan coming up.” 

Najem, whose father is Afghan, wanted to be a part of the squad for the August 19 match because of the significance it carries. 

Few games have been played in Kabul in the last 15 years, and Sunday’s friendly takes place on the Independence Day of Afghanistan. 

“We weren’t too sure if I was going to be able to make this game,” Najem said. “The (Afghan) coach was telling me it’s not part of a FIFA date or anything, but it’s such a big game for the country that I asked the (Union) coaches if I could go and be part of it and they’ve been really supportive and let me go.”

“It’s going to be an amazing experience,” Najem said. “They don’t have many home games, but that’s their goal, to show it can be a place that can host these types of games. I’ve gotten a lot of messages from fans over there and a lot of support has been shown. I’m really excited to be part of that and hopefully take the next step with the Afghan soccer community and show them they can be a country that can compete on a world stage.” 

Afghanistan played its home AFC World Cup qualifiers in Iran during the 2018 World Cup cycle, and it hasn’t hosted a game since a friendly in 2013 against Pakistan. 

The last competitive match to be played in Kabul was in 2003 during qualification for the 2006 World Cup in which Afghanistan lost to Turkmenistan.

The 145th-ranked team in the FIFA World Rankings is led by 28-year-old Anoush Dastgir, who is also a youth coach at NEC Nijmigen in the Netherlands. 

“He’s one of the youngest international coaches in the world,” Najem said. “He has a good resume. He played in the Dutch league. He’s a coach for a Dutch academy team as well. He had a bad injury to end his career and he started coaching from there.” 

“That’s also a good reason I want to experience this,” Najem said. “I’m sure he’s going to help me figure some things out about my game and help take me to the next level. Having people with different backgrounds helping you develop your game is not the worst thing in the world so I’m looking forward to all that.” 

Najem’s experience isn’t the first of its kind for an MLS player to take part in, as Justin Meram of the Columbus Crew represents Iraq and LAFC’s Steven Beitashour plays internationally for Iran. 

“It sounds like my story is pretty similar to (Justin) Meram’s, but I don’t know (Meram or Beitashour) personally,” Najem said. “I’m kind of just going into this camp with an open mind and seeing where it goes from there. It would be nice to be in touch with those guys and share experiences and learn from them on how they’ve dealt with everything with travel and big games. That’d be a cool thing to hear and listen to from (Meram) and hopefully we can get that set up someday.” 

The journey to Asia will be a long one, but Najem hopes he can take plenty out of a unique opportunity to represent a country which he has close ties with. 

“I feel like I’ve taken a step and shown some confidence (with my game),” Najem said. “I haven’t been able to crack the 18, but hopefully I’ll take this experience being with the national team and take some stuff back, continue improving and helping (USL team) Bethlehem (Steel) and the (Union) first team any way that I can. Hopefully I get more appearances and help this team get into the playoffs and Open Cup. I’m here to do my job and any way I can help, that’s what I’m going to do.” 

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