Afghan women’s football team finds new hope in Australia

On a sports ground in Melbourne’s west, a football team warms up in the autumn sun. After a last-minute pep talk from their coach, the players take their places and the referee whistles.

Similar scenes play out every weekend in Australian cities, but the banality of the suburbs masks the anticipation surrounding this game. This is the first match of a new season for members of the Afghanistan women’s national team, who fled to Australia after the Taliban took control of their country last August.

The team competes in a Victorian state league after gaining support from A-League club Melbourne Victory.

“It’s a new start, it’s a new start,” said 20-year-old team captain Fati*. “We are lucky to be what we dream of.”

Eight months ago football was the last thing on their minds. Just days after the fall of the capital, Kabul, the players learned that two Taliban members had come to the Afghan Football Federation office to ask for their names and whereabouts.

“Our coach told us that the Taliban came and asked them, ‘Where is the Afghan women’s national team?’ “, says Mursal *, a 19-year-old defender. “They told them, ‘We know you have a girl team, you have to show us.’ ”

Officials refused, she said, but even so one of the players began to receive death threats via text message.

Fearing that he was in imminent danger, Fati contacted a former captain of the Afghan team, Khalida Popal, who now lives in Denmark.

It sparked a chain of events that eventually led them to Australia, after former Socceroos captain Craig Foster became a refugee advocate, and human rights lawyers lobbied the government to help evacuate them.

But first, players had to pass Taliban checkpoints to the airport.

Fati buried his football shirts and medals in his family’s yard, packed a backpack and left with his family and teammates. “I left everything that says football behind me,” she says.

For two days they fought through the crowds outside the airport, struggling to overtake thousands of other Afghans desperate to board the last flights before foreign troops departed. They sat for hours in a sewer filled with dirty water.

“The Taliban were in front of us with a gun,” says Mursal. “If they know you’re a football player, it’s so dangerous. Even when I say that, my heart beats so fast.

Fati walked through one of the airport gates, then coordinated with Australian soldiers to usher in her teammates and three of her siblings.

But her parents, from whom she had separated, did not board the plane. Beaten by the Taliban and fearing for their lives, she says, they decided to return home with her youngest sister.

“That’s when I broke into pieces,” says Fati. “Because of me, they were in this situation.”

Over the following weeks, 38 Afghan women and girls, a mix of current and former national players as well as club players, arrived in Australia, most settling in Melbourne. The youngest is 15 years old.

Many teammates live together and have become each other’s surrogate families. They often laugh and make fun of each other, but in quieter moments they talk about the massive upheaval they’ve been through and the lives they’ve left behind.

“We lost our youth,” Mursal says. “We wasted our days with our families.”

Just before her country fell into chaos, she found out that she had been accepted to study graphic design at Kabul University. Now she works in a popcorn packaging factory and is learning English.

Fati was studying economics at university in Afghanistan and worked as a volunteer English teacher and trained three times a week. She now works in a restaurant in Melbourne, has just completed a leadership course and helps coordinate the team.

The players have chained a series of firsts since their arrival in Australia. Visits to the beach and seeing a woman driving a tram were some of the highlights.

Many older players want to learn to drive and some have already obtained their learner’s license. But these new experiences are marred by fears for their families back home.

A series of bomb attacks have rocked Afghanistan in recent weeks and the lives of women and girls are increasingly restricted by the Taliban.

The new government reneged on its promise to allow girls to return to secondary schools and banned women from traveling abroad without a male companion.

Shortly after taking power, a Taliban leader told SBS News that women would not be allowed to play sports.

Fati and her teammates seem painfully aware of the chasm between their daily lives and those of the sisters, mothers and friends they left behind.

She says her friend who couldn’t evacuate now stays home all day, unable to go to college or play sports.

Even before the Taliban takeover, Fati says, being a soccer player in Afghanistan came with many restrictions. Women had to train on a field with armed guards posted around the perimeter and wearing the hijab was mandatory.

On Sunday, dressed in white jerseys and shorts over long black tights, some players wore black headbands while others played in a ponytail.

“It’s a good thing in my life to have this opportunity, to be able to play as I want, without any restrictions,” says Fati, who is also the team’s goalkeeper.

The federal government’s announcement in the March budget that it would provide 16,500 additional humanitarian places over the next four years to Afghans sparked a flurry of enthusiastic phone messages between players, hoping their loved ones might be among them.

Mursal, whose family fled to Iran after his brother, a former soldier, escaped kidnapping by the Taliban, finds separation from loved ones the hardest thing to deal with.

“Now we have a missing part of our life,” she says. “I hope that as soon as possible we will have recovered this missing part and we can have a normal life.”

On Sunday, the players returned to the football pitch, guided by Melbourne Victory Women’s Head Coach Jeff Hopkins.

The club also provides equipment, clothing and logistical support to the team, whose official name is Melbourne Victory Afghan Women’s Team. For home games, they will wear the red and white they wore as Afghan national players.

Craig Foster says it’s essential to ensure players have the opportunity to continue their footballing career.

“They are an incredible symbol of women’s rights,” he says. “Every time they step onto a pitch, every time they kick a ball and demonstrate the love they have for the game, it is a blow to the Taliban ideology.”

For 90 minutes, the young women are once again focused on the sport they love, their perseverance earning them numerous penalty kicks that come heartbreakingly close. Finally, five minutes from time, the team’s tallest striker sends the ball into the net.

The girls sprint to kiss but the referee calls the striker offside, disrupting the players’ elated celebrations. The final whistle sounds. There is no fairy tale ending. It’s a draw.

After three cheers from their opponents, the ETA Buffalo Sports Club of Victoria, a team founded by refugees from Timor-Leste four decades ago, the Afghan players leave the field discouraged.

Jeff Hopkins tries to cheer them up, telling them he doesn’t want ‘no sad faces’ and today’s game is just the start. He is impressed by their desire not only to play but also to win.

“They are quite combative,” he says. “They have a very strong will to win.”

On the bus ride home, Mursal remains deflated. “I expected better than that,” she says, explaining that the girls have been too busy finding new homes and jobs and studying English to devote a lot of time to training. “We will work on our weaknesses.

Fati’s disappointment with the result is tempered by the realization of what she and her teammates have achieved after their traumatic journey. She says being back on the pitch has made her feel “fresh and powerful”.

“It was amazing to reunite with my teammates,” she said. “I felt like I lost something but I found something today.”

* Nicknames have been used for security purposes.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 under the headline “Target Target”.

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