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Afghan women’s football team in exile call on Fifa for recognition

For Fatima Yousufi, football is not just a game. “When we are playing, we are playing for our sisters and our mothers back in Afghanistan. We are their voices,” says the 21-year-old goalkeeper and captain of Afghanistan’s women’s football team.

Ever since the Taliban takeover two years ago, Afghan women have been denied basic rights such as the rights to education and employment, as well as a ban on participating in sport.

“Afghanistan is a prison for women now,” Ms Yousufi tells i. She managed to escape to Australia, along with the rest of her team, shortly after the terrorist group captured the capital, Kabul. As well-known female athletes, they were in danger of being arrested – or even killed.

“So that’s an important part for us [when we play] – to think about our sisters that are struggling, and to show that they are not alone and we are there for them.”

Former Afghanistan women's football captain Khalida Popal attends a training session in south London on March 30, 2018. - Former Afghanistan women's football captain Khalida Popal fled her country after receiving death threats but it has far from cowed her in fighting the prejudice which confronts women daily, she told AFP. The 30-year-old -- who has been based in Denmark since 2011 -- takes her message round the world and spoke after giving an inspirational talk to the girls of Team England who will compete in the Street Child World Cup in Moscow later this year. Popal said women could achieve anything, a belief she formed when as a child a group of men refused to give back the football she was playing with, saying girls had no right to take part in sport. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)
Khalida Popal, who now lives in Denmark, at a training session in south London in 2018 (Photo: Daniel Leal/Getty)

But now in exile, they are still unable to represent their country. Fifa, the international governing body of association football, has refused to officially recognise the women’s team.

Fifa has not responded to their repeated pleas, but in a statement to The New York Times, it said it is not its responsibility to recognise the team – it is the member association’s responsibility – which in this case is the Afghanistan Football Federation.

Khalida Popal, one of the founding players of Afghanistan’s women’s football team and now their director, tells i the federation cannot help.

It is controlled by the Taliban, she says, so “how can we put pressure on [the federation] and tell them ‘hey, go risk your life and say you’re standing with us?’ We don’t want to do that.”

She says Fifa should create a temporary committee that is independent from the Afghanistan Football Federation with representatives from the team, the players’ union, and Fifa, which could then give them official recognition.

“We don’t want our sacrifices and our fight for so long to just be ignored,” says Ms Popal, 36, who disguised herself as a boy when she was younger in order to play football, but was quickly discovered.

TO GO WITH Afghanistan-conflict-women-sport by Daphn?? BENOIT Afghanistan's women's national football team members take part in a practice session at a military club in Kabul on June 20, 2010. "Some families refuse to let women play, others don't like that we travel abroad without our families," says player Khalida Popal, 20, about the team that since 2007 has travelled to Pakistan, Germany and Jordan. AFP PHOTO/Massoud HOSSAINI (Photo credit should read MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP via Getty Images)
The team, who fled the country as the Taliban cracked down on women’s sport, at a practice session at a military club in Kabul in 2010 (Photo: Massoud Hossaini/Getty)

Eventually, she helped found the national women’s team in 2007. “We played for the first time in history under the flag of our country, with a badge on our chest and the national anthem played – that was the most beautiful and glorious moment,” she says.

The players risked their lives to play the sport they love – and faced violence, abuse, and harassment in Afghanistan. “Due to the threats I received and risks towards my life I had to escape in 2011,” says Ms Popal, who now lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Former Afghanistan women's football captain Khalida Popal poses for a photographer at Farum Park stadion on December 21, 2020. - She no longer sleeps, but will not give up: from Denmark, where she lives, the former captain of the Afghan women's football team orchestrates the exfiltration of players threatened by the Taliban and intends to continue her fight for the emancipation of girls in her native country. - Denmark OUT (Photo by Tariq Mikkel Khan / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP) / Denmark OUT (Photo by TARIQ MIKKEL KHAN/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)
Ms Popal, who dressed as a boy to play football when she was younger, says her brother was killed because of her activism (Photo: Tariq Mikkel Khan/Ritzau Scanpix/Getty)

“I left everything behind and my brother was killed due to my activism.”

The team still plays football regularly in Australia – but in unofficial Fifa friendly games. They have started a petition calling on Fifa to allow them to represent Afghanistan again, which has gained more than 100,000 signatures. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani female education activist, has also spoken out in support.

“By standing with us, you’re showing the Taliban or any group that has similar ideology, that women belong everywhere. And football is for women as well as for men,” says Ms Popal.

Fatima Yousufi, centre in green, says her home country is now a prison for women, and she plays to show them they are not alone (Photo: Afghanistan’s women’s football team)

The team have been enjoying watching the Women’s World Cup in Australia, reminiscing about when they could compete internationally.

“We were remembering the changing room moments, the moments when everyone hears the fans and the national anthem. It’s special things – watching the Fifa flags, watching your country’s flags, seeing the children standing by your side,” says Ms Yousufi. “It’s my dream to one day see the Afghan women in the World Cup, qualified and representing Afghanistan.”

“We are hopeful and we will not stop fighting,” she adds. “Giving up is not our thing.”

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