Early on a suitably idyllic Melbourne morning, 18 Afghan footballers and one referee took to the field at the Darebin International Sports Centre. The group were training under the banner of their nation’s women’s team for the first time since being forced to flee their homeland last August. It was an innocuous session, featuring the warm-ups, drills and team talks replicated at grounds around the world.
But there was a palpable sense of joy on display. Though a few have played games here and there since they were granted asylum, Saturday’s session was the first time the team – which was “built to fight” the Taliban’s ideology – had joined together since they sat on the floor of a crowded plane as it took off from Hamid Karzai airport, fleeing Kabul alongside more than 75 other players, relatives and team officials.
On that day, their existence as female footballers had made them a target; their safety could not be assured as the Taliban seized control of the country and reimposed their strict interpretation of Sharia law. But on Saturday, there were no such threats, no fears of what awaited them when they went home or if they would be forced to suddenly flee the field.
The session represented the beginning of a new chapter – spearheaded by former captain Khalida Popal and current player Fati* – and it is planned they will return to competitive football in their new home of Australia within months. From this foundation, the players hope to mount a case to return to international football by pressuring Fifa and governments around the world to ensure the principles of gender equality are upheld as the Taliban attempts to ban women from playing sport in Afghanistan.
“I was with my teammates, my second family,” Fati said after the training session. “The feeling was amazing. I can’t even describe it. I never thought that we would be together again and play together. But this is hope. It’s a new beginning. It’s a big achievement for all my teammates. Because once we thought we lost everything, we’d lost soccer, we’d lost our second family. And today we got it back. We saw each other after a long time. We played together. That is very precious for all of us. The day was even beautiful for all of us.”
“It was fantastic,” Frida* added. “I feel like everything has started again. We have a chance to play together again.”
In partnership with A-League club Melbourne Victory, which will supply the team with full logistical, administrative and coaching support from their football operations department, the team will spend the coming weeks and months training in anticipation of entering one of the local competitions overseen by Football Victoria.
Victory provided the players with brand new training gear and boots for their first unified session on Australian soil, but the offer of a club-branded training top was declined. The players wanted to wear their national team shirts.
The session was taken by Football Victoria NTC coach Helen Winterburn, and federation assessors were on hand to begin the process of determining which level would provide the best fit for the coming season.
Former Socceroos captain and human rights campaigner Craig Foster, who played a key role in securing the fleeing Afghan footballers’ sanctuary in Australia, said it was imperative that the side be allowed, when they were ready, to represent their nation.
“[The players have] made it very clear that they consider themselves the Afghan women’s national team,” Foster said. “And though they’re in exile, they should have the right to continue that.
“Fifa has a gender equality provision, and as part of membership of the Global Football body, countries are in a position where they have to, or they’re expected to, field women’s national teams. The Taliban, as the rulers of Afghanistan now, have refused to do that. So the question for Gianni Infantino and Fifa is: what are you going to do about it? Are you going to allow Afghanistan to only field men’s teams?
“If you are a member of Fifa, you must field female and male teams. Therefore, this is the Afghan women’s national team, and they should have the right to continue to play. Whilst they don’t abide by the Taliban’s ideology, they are extremely proud Afghan women. And they see themselves as the Afghan women’s national team in exile, and rightly so.
“They are a symbol for every Afghan girl and woman, both in Afghanistan and around the world. For their right to equal participation in society, whether that’s education, sport, or any other field of life. So every time they kick the ball Afghan women around the world can see a living symbol of the rights that this group refuses to give up.”
“Still I have hopes for our national team,” added Fati. “Me, my friends and my teammates still have hopes for a future in which we will play back under our beautiful flag. This is important. But even if it’s not with the national team, it will be OK. Because we will be together.”
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