Meet the former Man Utd player trying to lead Afghanistan to the World Cup

Andy Mitten

The aeroplane banked in preparation for landing and Ashley Westwood looked out of the window at what he thought was Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Westwood — once on the books at Manchester United and later a player for Bradford City in the Premier League — was on his way to negotiate a contract to become the manager of Afghanistan’s national football team.

It was September 2023, two years after the Taliban had retaken control of the country following the withdrawal of the U.S. and its allies, including the UK. Tens of thousands of people had been airlifted out in August 2021.

Due to the risk of violence and kidnapping, the British government had advised him not to go. Westwood ignored the advice. He was unable to get travel insurance due to the danger. His family was concerned.

“Welcome to Kandahar,” said the pilot.

“I thought we were going to Kabul,” Westwood said to Ismail Amiri, the national team captain and the only other passenger in the 12 seats that have been roped off as business class.

“We’re just stopping here to drop some people off,” replied Amiri, a 34-year-old footballer. Westwood looked out the window and saw military paraphernalia at the airport which became the world’s busiest single-runway airport at one point during the NATO surge of 2009.

The plane took off again and continued to Kabul airport. It was time to disembark. Westwood, 47, walked down the steps towards a jeep waiting at the bottom of the steps. A window was wound down and a voice came from within.

“Welcome, coach. Get in.” Westwood and Amiri walked towards the car and did just that. He was asked for his passport, then driven 50 metres to a waiting room. His bag was taken off the plane.

“I got from the plane to clearing the airport in about three minutes,” Westwood tells The Athletic. “As we left, a man with the biggest machine gun I’ve ever seen — though I’ve not seen many — gets in the front of the car with his gun prodding upwards.”

Westwood in his playing days for Northampton Town in 2011 (Pete Norton/Getty Images)

After a journey involving several checkpoints, they arrived at the Afghanistan Football Federation.

“I went because I wanted to see them face to face,” he says. “To ask them what they wanted and to tell them what I needed to achieve that. This is my character, whether I make the right or wrong decision. Like when I told Sir Alex Ferguson that I knew more than him. I didn’t.”

Westwood met senior Afghan football officials, with Amiri as the translator. One of Afghanistan’s most capped players called. He’d recommended Westwood, based on the Englishman having all but built Bengaluru FC from scratch in Bangalore, won the league twice, the cup once and reached the final of the AFC Cup, Asia’s second-tier continental cup competition. That was unheard of for an Indian team.

Afghan football, meanwhile, was having a difficult time. There had been a revolt and 18 of the players had refused to play for the national team again. Players had been openly critical on social media, with allegations of corruption and stories of players being stranded at airports with no money for food when they travelled. Those players who did want to play for the national team wanted guarantees — better flights, money per game and they wanted to decide on the new coach. This was all before Westwood agreed to discuss the position.

“People read a lot about Afghanistan as a country,” says Westwood. “It had gone through tough times and so had their football. I told them what I felt was needed and that if it wasn’t going to be possible then I’d leave right then. I wasn’t begging for a job, but I needed to do my job with no interference.

“I’d also read about the issues (player revolt) and while I’m all for player power, players shouldn’t be deciding who the coach is. The issues were before me but I told the federation that players would get a chance under me and that I’d make the set up more professional with high-level coaching, good training and use of technology.

“The players were also entitled to good flights and hotels, any international footballer should expect that, but organising things is not easy in Afghanistan. There are limits on oversees transactions. There were no sponsors. Who wanted to sponsor a team that wasn’t winning? Outside help was needed from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

“If I delivered that, the players had to trust me and if they did, they would soon see improvements. And if they had an issue with the federation they should come to me and not social media. I would then do my best to sort the issues out.”

After six hours, there was no agreement. In six days, Afghanistan were due to play a very strong Qatar side away in a World Cup qualifier, then play a home game against Kuwait. Except Afghanistan are not permitted to play in Afghanistan, so currently play home games in Saudi Arabia. Westwood was taken to his hotel for the night.

“I was told that the hotel wouldn’t be the best one I’d ever stayed it, but it would be the safest. The security was tight and there were lots of checks. There was also a sign saying, ‘Please leave your weapons here’. When I shut my hotel room door, I felt like I was inside a bank vault.”

The next day a deal was reached. Westwood was soon in a press conference with 50 people present and little idea about what was being said.

“I had pictures taken with a team shirt and agreed to take a training session with the lads who were in Kabul, then I was taken to a beautiful restaurant. The local food was amazing: breads, meats, rice. I was treated well and with respect in Kabul. Afghans told me they wanted me to do well so I’ll try and do that.

“Then I set to work bringing a football team together.”

Westwood, Afghanistan’s new head coach (Afghanistan Football Federation)

Westwood’s strong personality features heavily in his stories, for good and bad.

“I was very strong-willed as a kid and made some poor decisions,” he says, “probably because I didn’t get the right guidance. My parents had separated and I needed a father figure.

“I did a two-year apprenticeship at United and signed a one-year professional contract. Michael Appleton and I were the only ones from our year to get professional contracts and I was soon in the reserves, yet I calculated that I was the 10th-choice defender for one of the best teams in the world.”

In 1995, he was playing in reserve games at United and was making progress when Ferguson asked to see him and told him he was doing well. Sir Alex offered him a new two-year deal. It was a bump from £210 a week to £275.

“I replied, ‘I can’t be doing that well if the increase is only £65′. Ferguson was doing things the right way, but I was telling him that I needed to buy a car to get to training. I told him that I needed a £5,000 signing-on fee to buy a car. He laughed and said, ‘Get in my team and I’ll look after you’.”

Westwood couldn’t see how he could get in the team, not without an injury crisis.

“My mentality was, ‘I’ll go somewhere else and teach him’. I didn’t have an agent, just a demon in the back of my head telling me the wrong information. ‘I’ll leave,’ I told Fergie. ‘There’s the door,’ he said. ‘Can I go for free?’ I replied. ‘No chance,’ he said. ‘You’re a Man United reserve team player. It’s £75,000’. ‘Well, is that not going to make it hard for me?’ ‘Yes, of course it is!’ That made me want to prove him wrong.”

Crewe Alexandra were interested, so he went back to see Ferguson.

“He already knew about Crewe’s interest. He knew everything. I still thought that he’d agree to a signing-on fee and I’d stay at United, but because I was pig-headed I didn’t ask him. So, I left the room again. Crewe then told me that United wanted £500,000 for me. A tribunal was needed to sort out my transfer.

“Looking back, even though I was 10th-choice defender, I was still ahead of Wes Brown. But I hate ‘what ifs’. There are loads of people in football pinning the blame for not making it on someone else. Wes had a great career at United and I went to Crewe.

“I probably needed the modern-day Alex Ferguson to say, ‘Come on, son, trust me’. But he was a tougher man then and he was right to be tough. I actually see him now, he’s wonderful with my partner and I. And because he doesn’t forget anything, he did remind me, ‘You didn’t get your car, did you?’

“But I also had a full career and retired aged 35. I played in England’s top five divisions and got promoted out of every league apart from the Conference (now National League, the fifth tier). I retired on my terms. I was assistant player-manager at Portsmouth. I broke my ankle and thought, ‘It’s time to concentrate on my coaching now’.”

Westwood at a training session (Afghanistan Football Federation)

Westwood’s career in over 500 games encompassed Crewe, Bradford (who, in 2000, stayed up on the final day of the season by beating Liverpool), Sheffield Wednesday, Northampton Town and Chester City. Some of those latter games were when he returned to Crewe and played alongside his namesake, leading to chants of “two Ashley Westwoods”. Then, he became assistant manager to his friend Appleton at Portsmouth, Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers, watching 400 matches per year on a screen as part of his video analysis preparation.

After leaving Blackburn in 2013, an agent asked if he was interested in management in India.

“It was a shock at first but then I studied the offer. It was to manage Bengaluru FC. I won the league in two of my three seasons there and the cup in the other. I also did my coaching badges and completed my UEFA Pro Licence with the English FA.”

Jobs in Malaysia followed, and media work in India, but Westwood didn’t have the profile of, say, Robbie Fowler, who was able to land a job in Australia’s A-League. That would have been useful given he’s been based in Sydney with his partner, Australian television presenter Mel McLaughlin, for much of the last decade.

Instead, the call came from Afghanistan.

Westwood has only had to return to Kabul once since he agreed to take the job on. Instead, he is flown from his home in Australia to training camps in Saudi Arabia — wherever is available. So far they have taken place in Damman (where Jordan Henderson’s former team Al Ettifaq where based), Abha and Al Ahsa.

The first time he was able to gather his players was ahead of their World Cup qualifier against Qatar, an away match in November. Carlos Queiroz was manager of the opposition, who were ranked far above Afghanistan. The game was to be played in the Khalifa stadium, which had staged matches during the 2022 World Cup.

Afghanistan’s players turned up two days later than Westwood expected. Eighteen of them were still boycotting the Afghan Football Federation. In three days, he had to shape a side from those who turned up.

Westwood coaching his players in Saudi Arabia (Afghanistan Football Federation)

“In my first training sessions, I had 19 players based in Afghanistan. The problem is that most were not playing regular football as the league isn’t fully established. So they weren’t fit enough. We had them fitted with GPS systems because my assistant called a favour in from StatSports. The stats were nowhere near good enough. We got smashed 8-1,” he says.

“It could have been 18-1. I had to stand on the side and take it but I kept trying to drive the team on. Tim Cahill was Qatar’s assistant. Qatar’s coaching staff were apologetic as they looked at me and said things like, ‘You have got the toughest job in football here’. I didn’t want sympathy. Kuwait were next. The lads were badly damaged by the 8-1 and we lost 4-0 against Kuwait, yet I already saw improvements.”

He started looking for players who were based outside of Afghanistan who were playing in better leagues. By the next training camp, the number of Afghanistan-based players went from 19 to 11. By the third camp there were only four, two of them back-up goalkeepers. The only one who’d play in the next game against India, who had ambitions of finishing second in the four-team group, was Mahboob Hanifi.

“I need the Afghan domestic league to be played regularly to help with player fitness, but until that happens I have to look around the world for eligible players who had an Afghanistan passport, or who could apply for them. For our third camp, we had players from 17 different countries: Canada, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Thailand, India, New Zealand, Australia. We search on social media for players of Afghan origin.

“We spoke to one in Sweden who said, ‘Look, I’m about to make my debut for Sweden.’ And he did. I’m trying to convince a player who’d been at Leverkusen. I found a young lad, Amin (Nabizada), at Watford. I saw him on the bench in a game and noticed his name. He’s 16 and decent. He came to the camp after I had a chat with Watford as I knew people there. They trusted us, saw that we did proper GPS stats.”

The two World Cup qualifiers against India followed in March, the first in Abha, Saudi Arabia, then in Guwahati, India, who had beaten Kuwait away 1-0 and were fancied to beat Afghanistan away and at home.

“We drew 0-0 ‘at home’ in Saudi and the responses to the training were clear. I’d brought my assistant Matt Holland. We worked together in India. He’s the sh*t Matt Holland (another was a Premier League regular), just like I’m the sh*t Ashley Westwood. And our physio Scott Tomkins, who doesn’t have a doppelganger. This job is not going to make us millionaires, but we’re going to go for it and do a good job of what is a massive job.”

The trip to India came five days later. Westwood had been planning for a while, going to bed at 2am and waking up at 5am to try and get all the preparation done. Him, Holland and captain Amiri booked economy flights for his players — Westwood’s flight alone was 10 legs and he had to book for 35 people, with it all approved by FIFA.

Afghanistan fans at the match against Qatar in November (Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images)

“Logistics are the hardest part of this job. We played in the northeast which is hard to reach from most of India, let alone from Abha, Saudi Arabia. It was like Wacky Races after the game (in Saudi) because I knew that both teams had to make the same journey.”

Westwood decided to book a route to the second match in India which he thought would give Afghanistan an advantage. “We had dinner at 2am, then we scrambled to the airport at 3.45am — I knew the lads wouldn’t be able to sleep. We took a 6am flight to Riyadh, where we had to get from the domestic terminal to the international one. It was tight. Imagine 35 (Afghan) lads steaming through the airport with three British lads to make a check-in.

“We flew to Abu Dhabi where we’d only have 45 minutes to make the connection. I made all the lads put one pair of boots, a training kit and a match kit in a rucksack as hand luggage in case our bags weren’t transferred. I planned for everything. We got to Bangalore airport in India and I marched my boys out of it like Mighty Ducks because I knew there was a hotel opposite the airport from when I’d managed in India. We got there at 7pm. We paid for that hotel with money we’d earmarked to pay for our Indian visas, which we didn’t end up needing to pay.

“By that time, I was thinking, ‘We’ve had a free meal on the Etihad flight and were about to get a nice breakfast after a good night’s sleep. In the morning, I marched the boys back into the airport for an 11.30 flight to Guwahati and we landed 20 minutes after the India team. Yet we’d had three good meals and a night’s sleep, while they’d travelled for 24 hours via Dubai and Delhi and through the night. We were ahead of them in terms of recovery.”

There was another surprise.

“We were in the same hotel as India. We made it like our home. We played a game of head tennis in the pool knowing that the Indians would be watching and see our excellent team spirit. When you can see a team with a good spirit and you’re in a team when it’s not quite right, it hurts.”

Yet India took the lead. Sunil Chhetri, a star of Indian football, put his side ahead with a 38th-minute penalty.

“At half time, I explained what we’d done right and why we’d conceded. Then I said, ‘Listen boys. I am telling you now that we are going to beat these. I know football, I know tactically where we are compared to them. We’re winning this’. I’d also done a lot of research into India and how they played.

“Then Rahmat Akbari, who plays for Steve Kean’s side in Georgia (Torpedo Kutaisi) equalised for us. He’s also played in Australia’s A-League, he’s a good player. Then Mukhammad Sharif stepped up in the 88th minute to take a penalty. He lives in Russia and hadn’t played for seven months. He scored. Brilliant.

Afghanistan’s Sharif Mukhammad celebrates scoring against India (middle, left) (Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images)

“We beat a team ranked 112. We’re 158. (It was) the first time Afghanistan have ever beaten India in India. We had five players in the squad who don’t even have a club. Most of them can speak English but I use Google Translate with some of the staff.”

The result left Afghanistan in third place in their World Cup qualifying group, which also serves as qualifying for the Asia Cup. The top two teams qualify for the next round of World Cup qualifying. Afghanistan are equal on points with India but behind on goal difference. This evening they face Qatar, who are top of the group. Then comes their match against Kuwait on Tuesday. That’s a big one.

“If we can finish second in this group then we’ll qualify for the Asia Cup for the first time and we get another crack at it if we finish third,” he says. “It’ll be hard. It was never going to be easy, this job, was it?”



‘Our dream is to make the people proud’: Afghanistan men’s team ready for first game since Taliban returned

(Top photo courtesy of Afghan Football Federation)

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