From Quebec to Qatar: Hoshang Noor Ali’s unlikely path to the world stage
Doha: At 18 years of age, Hoshang Noor Ali’s chance at a top-flight football career looked to have passed him by but seven years on, he stands on the verge of making his international debut when Afghanistan’s FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 Asian Qualifiers campaign begins against Qatar on Thursday.
In doing so, Noor Ali will swap the third tier of Canadian football for a meeting with the Asian champions and, as he exclusively told the-AFC.com, his journey from the local league to the world stage is a tale of extraordinary perseverance.
“I had no opportunity anymore, so in my head I said, “Okay, I give up’” and I decided to go study, get a diploma or just go and find myself some work," said the Afghanistan national team’s newest call-up.
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Then 18, Noor Ali had just returned to his home in Montréal from a trial period with French club FC Metz, where he spent time alongside future Liverpool star Sadio Mané but wasn’t offered a professional contract.
Upon his return, the position he previously held in the reserve side at local Major League Soccer outfit Montreal Impact was now a mere spot in the youth team, ultimately leading to his release from the club and into the professional footballing wilderness.
Last month, Noor Ali, 25, woke up to a text message that would have seemed impossible just a few years earlier.
“On the 19th of August, I had a notification from (Afghanistan head coach) Anoush Dastgir. He wrote to congratulate me because he was selecting me for the games against Qatar and Bangladesh,” Noor Ali recalls.
“I had too many feelings. I thought about too many things.”
So how did a player for AS Blainville, a local league club from the Canadian province of Quebec find himself called up for the Afghanistan national team?
“It’s been a crazy story,” warns Noor Ali, one of the few remaining international footballers without a Wikipedia page.
اسامی 23 بازیکن دعوت شده به تیم ملی فوتبال افغانستان برای حضور در مسابقات مقدماتی جام جهانی 2022 و جام ملت های آسیا 2023 در مقابل قطر و بنگله دیش. pic.twitter.com/nWKdSqImwx— Afghanistan Football Federation (@theaffofficial) August 20, 2019
Born to Afghan parents in Tajikistan in 1994, the Noor Ali family arrived in Canada four years later, and their youngest son quickly began playing football on the streets with his older brothers.
He took his talent beyond the local neighbourhood when he took his first steps in organised league football at 11, and by his teens he was featuring in youth squads and trialling with clubs in Europe.
“When I was young with my friends, we all had dreams and I told them; ‘I don’t know how, but somehow, I’m going to make it to a high level with great players and have great experiences’,” he recalls.
“They were happy that I had that dream, but they all thought that I was crazy.”
But rejections, missed opportunities and a lack of top-flight clubs in the area meant that, at the young age of just 18, it began to dawn on Noor Ali that his dream of becoming a pro was becoming increasingly unlikely, with his subsequent decision to join local club Blainville was based more on friendship and fitness rather than a shot at the professional game.
In the next four years, little changed for Noor Ali. Then 22 and with the responsibilities of day-to-day life taking precedence, the ambition that had filled his teenage years had been replaced by acceptance, but that all changed when he participated in a tournament for the global Afghan diaspora in Dubai.
“Teams from all over the world were in the tournament. Afghan teams from the Netherlands, Germany, America. All over the world.
“My team didn’t win but there were some national team players there who saw me and approached me.”
That experience led to an introduction to the New York-based Afghan team Brishna FC, who Noor Ali joined in similar tournaments in the US, something he credits as one of the two major turning points in his football journey.
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“That’s how I got spotted,” he recalls.
“Every time I went to those tournaments, I got more and more eyes on me and people were asking why I wasn’t in the national team. That actually started to motivate me.
“It lit a flame inside my head. I started to believe it in again, that maybe I could do it.”
At that moment, powered by little other than his own self-belief, Noor Ali made a decision.
“Three years ago, I decided to go all in,” he reveals. “To give everything I had and see what happens.
“Since I was 22 years old, I have given myself to the sport. I have taken it really seriously. I went to the gym, did my own video analysis, made sure I ate clean and focus on the soccer. I was all in.”
While improved performances in Quebec followed, Noor Ali’s other crucial boost came two years later after a standout display for Blainville against USL Championship club Ottawa Fury in the Canadian Championship – a cup competition which pits professional clubs against the champions of local leagues.
“Sometimes I look at the highlights of that game and I have chills because of the way I played against those guys,” Noor Ali reveals.
“We are a team from the third division, and we played against a professional team. My team has three practices a week and then the game, but we don’t live from our sport. We have to have something else on the side.
“That was the day I realised I could do it.”
He also built a friendship with Haroon Amiri, an Afghanistan national team veteran he refers to in glowing terms, who – upon noticing Blainville’s unsung Afghan talent on a visit to Canada – relayed a scouting report to head coach Dastgir.
From there, the national team boss began to make weekly contact, culminating in the wake-up call of a lifetime on August 19, which could see Noor Ali face either Qatar on Thursday, or Bangladesh in a unique return to his birthplace Dushanbe five days later.
“Honestly, I had tears in my eyes because to make it to a national team is not easy,” recounts Noor Ali.
“I thought about everything; about the way my career was. At 18 I had given up. I thought about journey and my family.
“They did everything, and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have made it.”
While Noor Ali has been part of a Blainville side which has claimed an unprecedented three consecutive league titles in Quebec, the opponents he could face on Thursday are an entirely different proposition
Having claimed the AFC Asian Cup title in stunning fashion in the UAE in January, and with their most recent clash coming against Lionel Messi’s Argentina, Qatar’s international stars operate on a different plane to what Noor Ali has been accustomed to.
But, while he learned long ago not to take anything for granted in football, Afghanistan’s newest national team player holds no fear about the prospect of a meeting with the Asian champions.
“I have no assumption that I am going to come in and play. All I can say is: I have to prove to (the head coach) that I deserve it,” he says.
“I have to show him that he can count on me, and I hope and pray that I can have some time against Qatar because they are the Asian champions.
“I am the kind of guy that loves those kinds of games. It’s a better challenge. It’s a way for me to learn more, to grow more, to go out there and test myself. Just to see if I can play at that level.”
Afghanistan have never reached the FIFA World Cup or the AFC Asian Cup Finals, but with a growing legion of overseas-based players hopes are high for an improved Asian Qualifiers campaign.
It is a campaign Noor Ali hopes to leave his mark on, in the hopes the best chapters in his ‘crazy story’ are the ones that are yet to have been written.
Photos: Hoshang Noor Ali, Afghanistan Football Federation
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