The Afghanistan footballers fighting for recognition

Fatima of the Melbourne Victory Afghan Women's Team with Afghanistan team director Khalida Popal
The Afghanistan women’s team is no longer recognised by their country or Fifa

The changing room in the CB Smith Reserve grounds in northern Melbourne is filled with football kits and chatter.

Some players are doing last-minute boot checks, others putting on their shin guards. One is adjusting her half black, half orange hair and the goalkeeper is fixing her gloves.

On the face of it, this looks like any other locker room before a football match.

But there’s something different here.

For one, the only reason these women can play is because they fled their home country nearly two years ago.

Looking around, everything about these women – their red jerseys, their hairstyles, even their jokes and laughter – would be enough to get them severely punished or even killed had they stayed in Afghanistan.

Like hundreds of thousands of Afghans, members of the women’s national football team tried to escape after the capital Kabul fell to the Taliban.

The team and staff were eventually airlifted to Australia in August 2021.

They’re safe now in Melbourne and are getting ready to play their first friendly since they left.

They’re up against the ‘football empowerment team’ which represents Melbourne’s refugee and migrant communities.

‘This game is for freedom’

The Afghanistan players may not be taking part in the Women’s World Cup, but they’ve already come a long way.

Just before she heads out to the pitch, Mursal Sadat says it’s not lost on her or her team-mates that millions of their countrywomen haven’t been as lucky.

“I have to be the voice for the women in Afghanistan,” she says.

“I have an obligation to represent those ladies in my home country – those who can’t study, those who can’t work or play soccer or do anything. I’m now playing for them.”

Sadat and her family tried to flee Kabul together. They spent three days outside the airport as gun-wielding Taliban soldiers were shooting around them.

In the chaos she got separated from her family.

“I managed to get inside the airport but my family couldn’t,” she adds. “I called my dad to tell him I was safe and he cried. It was one of the worst moments of my life.

“I’d left everything behind – every single memory. I had to cut all those connections to go – and survive.”

Walking on to the pitch with her team-mates, Sadat was in tears when the Afghan national anthem was played.

The team were all business once the game started, with striker Nilab Mohammadi scoring in the first half.

“I used to work in the military back home,” Mohammadi says.

“I’ll never forget when the Taliban came. I threw my uniform and my football kit away. Even now, when I sleep I dream about it.

“This game is for freedom in Afghanistan.”

‘They haven’t given up on football’

Watching Mohammadi celebrate with her team-mates, you can tell this is about more than football for them.

“It’s very emotional for me,” says Khalida Popal, the former Afghanistan captain who now lives in Denmark.

When Kabul fell and the Taliban ousted the government and took over, she worked tirelessly to evacuate the team and staff. As team director, she has come to watch them and promote the match.

“All those women sacrificed a lot to play for the national team and to be able to represent Afghanistan. Unfortunately they lost their title and lost home,” says Popal.

In addition to banning adolescent girls and women from studying at schools and universities, the Taliban have prohibited all female sports.

It means the Afghanistan team is not officially recognised by their country or Fifa.

“I’m very sad. I was expecting a lot more for football’s governing body,” says Popal.

“[Fifa needs] to stand with these women. We want leadership – we need a strong voice to stand with us. Don’t keep silent.”

Fifa said it is monitoring the situationexternal-link but added: “The selection of players and teams representing a member association is an internal affair. Fifa does not have the right to officially recognise any team unless it is first recognised by the concerned member association.”

Popal and others say this stance plays into the hands of the Taliban authorities.

Doing what they love has come at a heavy price: the constant anxiety about the safety of family and friends back home; the loneliness and stress of leaving everything behind.

Popal says “this beautiful game is keeping them together”.

“They haven’t given up on football,” she says. “And I really hope that football won’t give up on them.”

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