DAVIS, Calif. - Despite a leg injury that cut short his senior season, former men's soccer captain Ahmad Hatifie was not finished playing the game. The midfielder has been competing with the Afghanistan men's national team in international competition.
In his most recent game, Hatifie, a 2009 graduate, scored the game-tying goal against Laos to send his squad through the group stages of the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup.
Hatifie caught up with UCDavisAggies.com to bring us up to speed up on his continued career.
Q: How did you end up joining the Afghanistan national team?
Hatifie: Every year the Afghanistan National Team coach, Yosuf Kargar, attends major soccer events that include Afghan talent to recruit for the national team. Annually there is an all-Afghan tournament that includes Afghan Club teams from across the globe, held in Virginia during 4th of July weekend. I was recruited by the national team after competing in that tournament. After the tournament, coach Kargar then decided to attend one of my games at UC Davis, when we hosted Long Island University in 2008, my junior year. That game also included Mohammad Yusef Mashriqi (now a fellow Afghanistan National Team player), who played for LIU. We ended up winning that game 3-1 and were ranked as high as No. 17 in the nation that year and made the NCAA Tournament. Coach Kargar selected me after watching me compete that season.
Can you take us through your experience playing in the AFC Challenge Cup?
Prior to the AFC Challenge Cup competition in March, the Afghanistan Football Federation had selected a pool of 45 players from across the globe (Afghanistan, Germany, Norway, Iran, USA, etc.) to tryout for the team. This pool of 45 players attended a mandatory training camp two months prior to competition from Jan. 21 to Jan. 30 in Dubai to determine who would be selected for the 23-man AFC Challenge Cup roster. Of the 45-player pool, I was selected to the squad.
The team reunited in Dubai for another 10-day training camp then, soon after, flew directly to Laos for Challenge Cup matches.
Can you describe the game against Laos and the goal you scored (4:18 in the highlight below)?
Going into the game against Laos, we were undefeated in our group by defeating Sri Lanka, 1-0, and Mongolia, 1-0. Laos was also undefeated with a tie versus Mongolia and a win against Sri Lanka. This left us with a tie or win scenario in order to advance from our group. Playing against a team with home field advantage, especially at the international level, is never easy. After watching game film of their previous matches we knew going into the match that they were a team with a lot of pace and technical ability.
The game started as expected, both teams feeling each other out and taking a passive approach to the game, minimizing any chance of error. Unfortunately, we were the ones to commit the first costly mistake that lead to a goal towards the end of the first half. Our goalkeeper hesitated on a long ball over our defense which gave the opposing attacker a one-vs.-one situation with our keeper, and he beat him to the ball and headed it into the back of the net.
Things started to take a turn for the worse as our team faced our first moments of adversity. We had never trailed in a game throughout this tournament. Our team showed moments of frustration and soon after Laos's goal, our captain and the anchor of our defense received his second yellow card of the game and was ejected from the match. Going into halftime we were down 1-0 and we knew we were playing a man down for the rest of the game.
The locker room at that time was actually more calm than chaotic. We knew the tremendous challenge ahead of us and needed to refocus and unite for us to advance to the next round of Challenge Cup, in 2014 in the Maldives. If we lose we are out. So we went into the second half with a nothing-to-lose mentality.
We were forced to change our formation to a 4-4-1 structure, due to the ejection. Laos was clever in their approach as they sat back and possessed the ball as we pressured their backline without much success. I myself began to push up and join in the pressure and Laos started to breakdown. At about the 65th minute of the match we gained possession in the midfield and counter attacked quickly. Our outside midfielder, Mustafa Azadzoy, took a penetrating pass from our center midfielder, Haris Habib, behind the defense. Mustafa took a screamer of a shot and the Laos goalkeeper made a great save. At the time of the shot, I had also made a 40-yard run to follow up Mustafa's shot. As the goalie made the save, I put myself in a position to get the rebound. I trapped the ball on the fly to my right foot and fired the ball into the net (4:18 in the highlight video).
After the equalizing goal, we stacked our players in the back like a brick wall. We played 20 minutes of relentless defense and kept the tie. The game ended and we advance to the next round.
The feeling of scoring the game-tying goal for my country was euphoric. For the first time in my life, I shed tears of joy. So many emotions were running through my mind. Indescribable feeling. Afghanistan had never in its history advanced past the group stage in the Challenge Cup or any major tournament.
Soon after, FIFA released their world rankings and Afghanistan jumped 48 spots in the rankings to No. 141 in the world. This is the highest Afghanistan has ever been ranked.
What is up next for you and the Afghanistan national team?
The Afghanistan Football Federation has been invited to the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championships in Nepal. This tournament will be held from Sept. 20 to Oct. 2, 2013. The next round of the Challenge Cup will be after that. I will be competing in both tournaments. Afghanistan was the runner-up to host nation, India in our last SAFF competition in December 2011. That was my first trip as a national team player.
The Big West is a great college soccer league but playing for a national team must be at a whole other level. What are some of the differences and some similarities?
Playing Div. I soccer here in the United States at the collegiate level is a tremendous honor. However, representing a country far exceeds that. When representing a country you are on an international stage. In my opinion, it is the highest honor for a soccer player. It surpasses any club team you represent. The way I see it is, winning the World Cup representing your country outshines winning any domestic club championship.
After our recent Challenge Cup competition, I was fortunate enough to step foot for the first time in Afghanistan, the country where my parents were born, and the warm reception and overwhelming support from our fans and Afghan supporters was amazing. Being invited to television stations and attending interviews with tons of media was an experience of a lifetime. Little kids coming up to you and knowing you by first name and asking for picture and autographs was unreal.
How did your time at UC Davis prepare you for playing at the next level?
Playing for UC Davis and Coach Shaffer was a very special time for me. I could not have been around a better group of guys than the team we had my junior and senior years. We had, arguably, the most competitive team I have ever been apart of. We had some very special talent (Quincy Amarikwa, Sule Anibaba, Dylan Curtis, Paul Cain, Nicholas Lind, Paul Marcoux, Ian Conklin and Ryan McCowan just to name a few) on that team that made history at UC Davis. It was a great honor to be the captain of that historic team and competing against those guys every day in practice prepared me for the next level.
Unfortunately, my senior year, during our game against Cal State Fullerton we were ranked No. 13 in the nation with a record of 9-1-1 and I suffered a fractured leg after a tackle in the first minutes of the match. It painfully ended my senior year and my career at UC Davis. This was the lowest moment of my life and any dreams of becoming a professional player in the MLS were shattered that night. With that said, it made me as tough as I am today. I knew that it was not going to be my last day playing the sport that I love. Through a lot of hard work and rehab I was able to play the beautiful game and compete at a high level and now, playing for my national team, I can say I have fully recovered from that.
How else are you staying involved in the game since graduating?
I am currently playing for a NPSL team called the Bay Area Ambassadors that competed in the National Championships in San Diego last season. We finished fourth in the nation.
What is one of your best memories from playing with the Aggies?
I have been asked this question many times but I can’t, honestly, pinpoint a specific moment. I had good games like scoring twice against Air Force, however, every day was a special day for me at UC Davis. My entire career at UC Davis was great. I went from being a redshirt freshman to the captain of a team that was ranked as high as No. 7 in the nation. I have been very blessed throughout my career and am grateful to have had the opportunity to play at UC Davis. I miss it dearly.