Like any typical 17-year-old, Ali Qurbanali is fueled by dreams, and his goal is to be a professional soccer player. The teenager will make a substantial leap towards that goal on Saturday when he lines up for the Flint City Bucks when they host Rebels FC in a friendly at historic Atwood Stadium with a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
The 5-foot-4 center forward is the second player to make the jump to the first team from the Flint City Bucks Academy Program (16-19 yr old players), joining Grand Blanc’s Dom Gasso who debuted in the club’s 9-2 victory over the Rebels FC July 24.
The Bucks’ tradition of transforming players into professionals is well documented. Since 1996, 87 former Bucks have gone onto Major League Soccer while more than 200 luminaries have signed with professional sides across the world.
“My dream is to play professional soccer and I need to take whatever comes in front of me,” said Qurbanali, who also plays in the attacking midfielder role. “When I first came for the tryout for the Flint City Bucks Academy team, I told them I am looking forward to playing on the first team. I think I have the ability to play at that level.”
However, few prospects will have endured such a harrowing journey as Qurbanali to reach this point. His mother Aqleema and her six children fled war-torn Afghanistan in 2014 to Pakistan only to emigrate to the U.S. two years later when Ali was 12. Qurbanali’s father is deceased.
Hardships remain. His mother works two jobs while Ali, the second oldest of six, works at a service station in addition to playing for Grand Rapids-based Midwest United U19 team, which is part of MLS Next player development program.
Qurbanali played soccer at Lansing Everett High but a broken right leg sidelined him during his junior year while the pandemic scuttled his senior year. The leg break — his tibia and fibula were both shattered —required Qurbanali to be mentally strong during his recovery.
”Getting injured at a young age made me even more determined to become a good player in the future,” he said. “It was really tough sometimes because I was scared. I thought, ‘I probably won't be able to play soccer again,’ but I always did my therapy every day.”
Qurbanali has watched distressing events unfold in his native Afghanistan with heartache and helplessness. His mother and older sister are in contact with uncles and aunts remaining in Afghanistan through Facebook and Messenger. Mom and daughter are working tirelessly to bring those relatives to the U.S.
“The Taliban doesn't like us and it would not be safe for them to stay there,” said Qurbanali, who added the plight of what the Afghans are going through now is more severe than what his family experienced. “You can try to support them, but there is nothing we can do financially. All we can do is pray for them.
“To be honest, seeing what is happening in Afghanistan actually motivates me to work harder towards my dream. I want to become a good soccer player and end up going back to Afghanistan to help the community and my relatives.”
Qurbanali’s soccer IQ and attitude well exceed his 5-4 frame, Bucks academy coach Michael O’Neill said.
“He is someone that defenders dread playing against just because of his ability to manipulate the ball so quickly and ability to draw you in and win free kicks or skip past you,” said O’Neill, who also watched Qurbanali when Midwest United played Saginaw Valley State University in a recent friendly.
He is not intimidated by taller foes, said O’Neill, noting Qurbanali is blessed with “quick feet and a quick brain.” In addition to the Bucks Academy Program, Qurbanali also played for Michigan Rush in Jackson, MI.
The Bucks academy coach is elated the prospect is getting a chance to shine on the Atwood stage.
“I think it is going to be a great experience for him personally,” O’Neill said. “He's going to be surrounded by a lot of high-quality players that play the same brand he wants to play, so he's going to be able to showcase his skills and quality.
“Also, selfishly for me having coached him and the rest of the Bucks’ academy, it is a pretty proud moment to have some of these kids get called up to the first team and play at Atwood in front of the fans. I am hoping he enjoys the experience.”
Match time is 7:30 pm Saturday, September 11th at historic Atwood Stadium. Gates open at 6:30 pm. Tickets are $5 for kids 12-under, $10 for adults and $15 for VIP reserved. All first responders and family members will receive complimentary admission. Match tickets may be purchased in advance at www.ticketmaster.com, Flint Prints in the Ferris Wheel downtown or on match day at the stadium gates. Watch live on Mid Michigan’s CW46 or online via the Bucks website, Twitter page or YouTube channel.