Norlla Amiri, a refugee in Sweden since he was a child, is the first Afghan to become a professional football player in the Swedish top league. This is his story.
4,900 kilometers separate Kabul and Malmö, and in many ways these two cities are a world apart. One of the things they do have in common: A passion for football. The Afghan community in the Swedish city now has a new local idol after Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They are cheering on the terraces for Norlla Amiri.
Player and founder of Ariana FC Malmö, Amiri is also an international midfielder with the Khorasan Lions (the nickname of Afghanistan's men's national football team). But he is much more than a goal-scoring hero.
"I don't see sport simply as a physical activity and football as kicking a ball and putting it in the net," Amiri tells InfoMigrants. "I see it as something that brings people together, makes them happy and allows them to show their solidarity, mutual support and involvement in social life."
The first Afghan to become a professional in the Swedish top level, Amiri has crossed many paths and experienced tragedies, but he has never forgotten his main objective: to help those around him for the good of all.
'A part of yourself that disappears forever'
Born in the Afghan capital of Kabul in 1991, Amiri grew up in a country torn apart by ethnic tensions and riddled with the scars of war. His family wanted a better future, and worked hard for the opportunity to leave their beloved but conflict-torn country. They managed to get across the Middle East and Europe, to join an uncle who lives in Sweden.
"The experience of leaving your country and losing loved ones is the most horrible of all, it is a part of yourself that disappears forever and leaves deep memories in your mind for the rest of your life," recalls Amiri. "But we had to leave, and leave our land behind in order to have a better more peaceful future for our family," he explains.
From childhood to fame
Young Norlla Amiri and his family arrived in the suburbs of Malmö (in southern Sweden), and this young boy was already living for football. He spent his free time kicking the ball around with the local children in this culturally diverse city, and he laid down the foundation stones for his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
"We played all the time with kids from all over the world: Africa, Asia, the Middle and Near East, the Balkans. It was just great because we were all having fun and laughing and talking about world football stars and dreaming loudly: 'I want to be the next Zlatan!'" he smiles to this day. "We had no idea that some of us would actually turn professional a few years later, and when I see some of my childhood friends today we joke: 'We were innocent, but we predicted our futures well!'"
At the age of 14, Amiri was spotted by the club Lunds BK and asked to join their training sessions. From there, he progressed steadily until he made his professional debut at the age of 20, becoming the first Afghan player to play at this level in the Swedish league. But Amiri's other big dream was to still play for his own country.
Playing for his own country
In the summer of 2015, Amiri decided to travel back to Afghanistan to visit some family members. When he was there, he was told about a training session for the national team, which happened to be taking place during his visit. He decided to go straight there, a professional footballer in Sweden but completely unknown to the Afghan football authorities.
"I didn't bring any boots or kit, because I was only supposed to spend time with my family. When I heard about this training day, I just went. I was motivated by the idea of joining the national team," he tells InfoMigrants. "The coach had me play at left-back, which is not my position, but I wanted to give it my all, to finally wear the national team jersey and to realize my dream."
At the end of the session, Amiri had persuaded everyone: he had to be called up as soon as possible to play for the national team. He quickly became one of the team's key players.
Since then, he has become a integral part of the team, proud to represent his country at the highest level of world football, even though Afghanistan has not been able to play official matches on its own soil for over 30 years due to security concerns.
"FIFA is working to ensure that we can play official matches in Kabul in the near future instead of having to go to neutral ground in Doha or Dubai. We all wish we could play at home at least once in our careers. Playing in front of our people would be unique, an unforgettable moment for us and especially for the Afghan people who have been going through extremely difficult times for many years," says Amiri.
Founder of an Afghan football club in Malmö
Happy to have achieved his dreams, the young player does not intend to stop there. He has a project he wants to help his community. Amiri wants to use his background and personal story to help others, and to give the Afghan community more visibility through sport with their own football club. "The project was a bit crazy, but as soon as I have an idea in my head, I'll do everything I can to see it through," he says.
After many administrative problems and a personal investment of several thousand euros, Amiri founded Ariana FC, a football club linked to the Afghan minority in Malmö and open to all. He threw himself wholeheartedly into this new adventure, while continuing his professional football career. "I will never forget washing hundreds of shirts, the hours on the bus to play away games, but also the smiles of each child when our team scored a goal. We live for moments like these, and it's fantastic to be able to talk about the Afghan community through social and sporting actions that are constructive for everyone," he explains.
Playing for his own club
After just seven seasons, the club has moved up five divisions to the Swedish third division, one step up from the country's top professional level. "Norlla is the soul of this club, an exceptional man who always thinks about the team and helping others in all circumstances. This guy is a blessing for the community, one of the most impactful personalities in the city of Malmö and in the whole of Sweden. He's a real role model for everyone," said team-mate Matias Sorkenlund, a full-back at the club.
To top it off, Amiri himself signed for Ariana FC in the winter of 2018, to complete the circle and play for his own club. He has also helped recruit several Afghan talents from around the world, including his national teammate, goalkeeper Ovays Azizi.
"I had been in Denmark for several years after arriving here with my family as a refugee. I was a semi-professional footballer and occupational therapist and as soon as Norlla contacted me, I didn't hesitate, I said yes!", says Azizi. "Working with him is unique. He is passionate and driven by this permanent desire to build things, to show solidarity. He is a teammate, a friend, a brother for life."