WILLIAMSTOWN -- Nick Pugliese has the late John Denver to thank for making a connection with his newfound Afghan teammates.
The Williams College alumnus had just started playing professional soccer in Afghanistan last year and discovered the team bus trips were very entertaining.
"They were the most fun-loving group of guys, playing music and dancing on the bus," said the former Williams' soccer captain and midfielder. "Then they asked me when I was going to start singing to them."
After about two weeks of stalling, Pugliese finally gave in with his rendition of his favorite song when he played at Williams -- Denver's classic, "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
"Almost heaven, West Virginia / Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River," Pugliese sang, briefly serenading -- just as he did his team -- a captive audience in Williamstown on Sunday night.
The Rochester, N.Y., native returned to the Williams campus to speak about his 18 months living, working and eventually playing pro soccer in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, a month after graduating in May 2012. His story was the recent subject of a Sports Illustrated article and ESPN SportsCenter piece.
While Pugliese headed to Kabul to work for a telecommunications firm, he soon found himself playing pickup soccer in city parks. After nine months on the job, Pugliese opted to leave his employer and sign on to play professionally with Ferozi Football Club, becoming the first American to play professional soccer in Afghanistan. His team would finish second in the official Kabul Premier League playoffs at season's end.
Pugliese didn't hesitate to leave his company's comfortable living accommodations and move into a simple apartment building with several of Ferozi's team members.
He also didn't have second thoughts about staying in a country still recovering from the grip of the Taliban and years of civil unrest.
"I wouldn't have stayed there if I felt threatened on a daily basis," he told a gathering at Williams' Griffin Hall.
Pugliese opened his remarks with a history lesson of how soccer -- football to those outside the United States -- has over the past century helped unite the central Asian country, most recently last fall.
On Sept. 11, 2013, hundreds of thousands of Afghans from all backgrounds took to the streets to celebrate the national team's win over regional powerhouse India to become the champions of South Asia.
"Clearly there's a tension in Afghan culture," he said, "but what brings them together is soccer."
Pugliese is unsure how long the national pride will last through soccer, but he's hopeful it will help the rest of the country move forward.
After returning home to Rochester in December, the Williams graduate began raising funds to produce his 30-minute documentary about life on the streets in Kabul as seen through his video of pick-up soccer games.
As for returning to Kabul, Pugliese says he'll eventually want to rekindle friendships and again experience the Afghan culture, but soccer will be secondary.
"It was never about playing pro soccer," he said. "[Besides], you're not going to make much money playing there."
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