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Afghan women footballers – lives on the line

Afghan women footballers – lives on the line


Kim Kardashian is an unlikely guardian angel for the women who play for Afghanistan’s national football team. But she came to their help in their hour of need.


Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker. 

One story every day to make sense of the world of football. 

Today… the women footballers who’ve risked everything just to play the game.  


The great Bill Shankly once said: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

Some football fans would agree. 

But what happens when football is literally a matter of life and death? 

You might not be expecting to hear the name Kim Kardashian on this podcast. But last week, she heard about a dangerous situation affecting the Afghanistan girls’ football team.

As female athletes, their lives were in danger from the Taliban – the fundamentalist Islamic group now running the country. 

The regime, who violently oppose the sort of freedoms we take for granted, were actively searching for female athletes and their families. 

Burning down houses, abducting families… it’s an horrific picture.

“The extraordinary thing is that precisely the same sort of people that we saw being arrested and taken away as prisoners then, are now back in charge of the country.”

BBC News

That’s why when the reality star heard about the situation from the Jewish charity, Tzedek, she paid to fly the team out of the country – all of them.  She highlighted their plight to her 72 million followers on Twitter. 

It brought the group of thirty teenage girls and their families to safety in Britain… 132 people in total. 

Why the UK? 

Because the Leeds United chairman Andrea Radrizzani has offered every single member of the team a place on their youth development programme, which meant the UK government offered them visas. 

Moves are now underway to find them accommodation.  

Their new lives are necessary because to be clear, the girls were in fear of their lives, and merely because they played football. 

It’s too soon to know how important football will remain to them but the fact is that football gave them a way out of Afghanistan. 

But who is the woman whose actions brought them here?  And what is her remarkable story?

Khalida Popal was born in Afghanistan in 1987.  She loved to play football with her brothers, except playing football was denied to her. She wasn’t allowed to play in the streets with boys. 

“I started taking football serious. Because that was where I found my power. That was my power, to stand for my rights and say that society cannot decide what I want. It’s me who decides for myself and my right.”

International Champions Cup

By 2007, when she could play football after the Taliban fled Afghanistan, she had fought tirelessly to found the first-ever Afghanistan women’s national team. She says it was worth more to them than winning the World Cup.

“It was a success! Like… wearing a jersey for the national team of Afghanistan… it was a victory for us. For me, playing with the national team jersey, and seeing the badge in my chest, and listening to the national anthem of my country, and seeing the flag of the country waving… that was the most amazing and beautiful moment in my life.”

International Champions Cup

Ordinarily, that might have been the end of the story.  But in a Conservative country like Afghanistan, women playing football was highly controversial.

Consequently, Khalida Popal received death threats and, forced to flee her homeland, she sought asylum in Denmark in 2016.

The team continued to play – but bad things happened.  In 2018, when they met up in Jordan, they were accompanied by two men who committed acts of sexual abuse against them. 

FIFA banned the President of the Afghanistan Football Federation for life after ruling that he knew about the abuse. 

Despite this, football prospered. The national team shirt became a symbol of strength in the face of oppression. 

But then, earlier this year, The Taliban returned. Afghanistan was under their control once again. Khalida Popal was forced to put safety first.

“Today I’m calling them and telling them to take down their names, remove their identities, take down their photos for their safety. Even I’m telling them to burn down or get rid of your national team uniform.”


It was a sickening blow.  

“I’m not doing good, I feel heavy in my chest, I feel sad for my people, I feel sad for the women of Afghanistan, especially. And I feel sad for the generation who had dreams and hopes and their dreams I see them, their dreams are fading away and it is sad to see that.” 

CBC News

She has campaigned tirelessly to get these young women footballers to safety in the UK. 

But just as the job was far from over when the Afghanistan women wore their national team shirt for the first time, it’s not over now. 

She says she still has three lists in her hand – for footballers, volleyball players and young orphans – all of whom need a country to welcome them. 

Khalida Popal will not give up until they are safe.

Today’s episode was written by me, Chloe Beresford, and produced by Studio Klong.