Escape to victory: the Afghan women loving football again after fleeing the Taliban

The remarkable story of how the national team were rescued from threats and intimidation to resume their places on the pitch

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In the suburbs of Melbourne, a team of young women footballers, some wearing hijabs, file on to a pitch to widespread applause. They are in turn excited and nervous but the overriding emotion is one of relief that, against the odds, they have managed to play again at all.

However, this is not just any team of spirited youngsters. It is the remnants of the Afghanistan National Women’s team who only eight months ago escaped from Taliban rule, and in some circumstances possible death, in a quite remarkable story on both a sporting and human level. This was their first match together since fleeing to Australia.

The game against another Melbourne side, ETA Buffalo SC, a club established in 1982 by friends who had migrated from East Timor, in the Football Victoria State League 4 West competition, ended in a 0-0 draw, with Afghanistan having a goal disallowed.

Melbourne Victory Afghan Women's Team player Fatema, right, is tackled during their first match against ETA Buffalo SC in Melbourne. AFP

But in all other respects this was a huge victory for a courageous group of people who over the years had to defy abuse, both sexual and physical, from, among others, a former President of the Afghanistan Football Association, and threats, intimidation and violence just to be able to play the game they love.

It was also vindication of the efforts of a small group of activists, without whose endeavours amid the maelstrom and chaos of the fall of Kabul last August, the players’ very existence would have been in peril.

“Today we are playing as a team – together and powerful. It’s incredible,” said goalkeeper Fatima, who was one of those evacuated from Kabul. She could not divulge her last name for fear of reprisals against her family in Afghanistan.

Equally incredible is the story behind their escape. It is one that raises questions about the role of sports and governing bodies and their responsibilities and duty of care towards athletes and players they help to promote.

That it was left to a dedicated group of volunteers to plan, organise, co-ordinate and execute the eventual evacuation and escape of 33 players and another 44 family members and coaches to Australia, is, they believe, an indictment of organisations such as Fifa.

Members of the Afghanistan National Women's Football team and their families being evacuated from Kabul in the hold of a military cargo plane. Photo: Haley Carter

The quartet consisted of Kat Craig, a human rights lawyer based in London, Kelly Lindsey, the former USA international and Afghan Women’s national coach, who is now working in Sussex, England, as sporting director of Lewes FC, Khalida Popal, an ex-Afghanistan international now living in Denmark, and Jonas Baer Hoffman, the general secretary of Fifpro, the international players’ union, who without prompting had come forward to ask what he and his organisation could do to help.

The supporting cast in Australia included Zali Steggall, a former Australia Olympian who was re-elected last week as an independent MP for Warringah, Craig Foster, the former Australia men’s football captain and renowned activist, Ally Battison, CEO of Human Rights for All in Australia, and Nikki Dryden, a former Canadian Olympic swimmer who now works as a lawyer there.

The combined efforts of the "Gang of Four" were recognised recently at the prestigious Sports Industry Awards in London. On their behalf, Craig was the recipient of the Integrity and Impact award in front of a packed audience who rose to give her a standing ovation.

Melbourne Victory Afghan Women's Team with Craig Foster on May 1. Getty

She was reluctant to have the spotlight thrust on her. But, at the urging of Lindsey and Popal, she agreed to in order to pay tribute to the Afghan women footballers themselves, to raise awareness of the plight of athletes across the world who face discrimination in many forms, and to reinforce the belief that the sporting industry has it in its power to effect change when working together.

For a decade and more the players had used their platform to further the cause of female emancipation in an ultra-conservative country. This had outraged traditionalists. From being a symbol of hope they became pariahs. Neighbours were saying to them: "When the Taliban come your time will come. We are going to let them know where you live".

As the situation deteriorated, Popal started receiving voice messages from players. “They were crying and screaming and asking what they could do," she said.

"They were desperate and asking for help and they were looking for me to help them get out."

Some appeals were harrowing. One said: “The Taliban are hunting us I am sitting next to the window with a gun.”

Members of the Melbourne Victory Afghan Women's Team carry the Afghanistan flag before their first match. AFP

But, as Lindsey explained, the gun was not to shoot at the Taliban, it was to shoot themselves.

Craig continued: “Some of these women had been outspoken activists and advocates, women athletes who had been featured in the international press about how they could finally play sport and train and compete and being quite critical of the Taliban. We knew they were going to be a high-risk, high-value, target."

Crucially, she added: “Everyone should have realised that."

Craig continued: "Women went underground and were fleeing from house to house not staying anywhere too long. Khalida was telling them to burn their jerseys and get rid of all of the evidence that would associate them with being members of the women’s international football team.

“These were our poster girls who we had put out there. You are giving them profile, and that same profile will be used as evidence by the Taliban to hunt them down and kill them. Everyone should have been asking, 'How can we save these women, who with the best of intentions, we had put in a position of risk?’ That is the reality.

Coach Jeff Hopkins explains tactics to members of the Melbourne Victory Afghan Women’s Team. AFP

“If you are going to elevate women’s football and celebrate it in a positive way when the tide turns and they become a target how do you wash your hands of that? How do you then step back and say this is nothing to do with me?

"Khalida says it is not our role to tell people how to lead their lives. But it is our responsibility to remind them that they have the power to help others."

Over a week of little or no sleep, the quartet, working remotely pulled together a plan. “We phoned everyone we knew, anyone who might have worked in Afghanistan in a military, diplomatic or humanitarian capacity. We mined our networks.

“The key was looking for routes into the airport. We were monitoring round the clock what the safest routes would be to get them to an exit and on to a flight."

It became clear the best option was accessing the airport while still under the control of US, British and Australian troops.

Members of the Melbourne Victory Afghan Women’s Team. AFP

“We reached out to all our different contacts who knew the configuration of the airport.

“We realised there were times when the gates opened and shut. We figured out there was a pattern between the US, UK and Australians who were managing the gates at different times."

Spread sheets were compiled, documenting every detail of individual players, families and dependents, ID cards, passport numbers. It was arduous as each had to be tailored to suit individual nations to whom overtures could or were being made to accept the women. Having the correct paperwork was essential to allow them to be processed if and when they got into the airport. That, though, was the difficult part.

“It was madness at the airport,” Craig continued. “Nobody knew which gate was open and when. Some had doorways welded shut. It wasn’t easy to get anywhere. It was getting increasingly desperate. There was no food or water. Then the Taliban started coming to the airport setting up checkpoints.”

It was becoming a dramatic race against time. Then pressure from within Australia by Stegall and her contacts prompted the Australian government to offer help and temporary visas.

The women showed remarkable tenacity to get into the airport. Some found a way in by wading through open sewers avoiding Taliban checkpoints where they were attacking people with electric cattle prods.

“Eventually they got to the front of the queue and we were able to get a message to people on the ground to let them in."

On August 24, with Popal having liaised directly with the players, who knew and trusted her, came the evidence that all the hard work, stress and anxiety had been worth it.

“We received a picture of them boarding a plane. It was a massive military cargo plane,” Craig said.

“It was a moment of relief rather than celebration because we knew they would have all been incredibly sad to have left, some had some family with them, many did not. Everything they had worked for was being left behind. It was as good as we could have hoped for. We didn’t think we would get that many people out."

Later members of the development team got out overland through Pakistan and are now in the UK. The youth team made it to Portugal.

Kat Craig received her award at the SIA dinner. Photo: SIA

“Of course I am happy the women in Australia are safe and really hope they continue to be supported and championed and can rebuild their lives," said Craig.

“What I am pleased about is that we showed where there is a will there is a way. If this small group of people can come together then surely organised sport can do it.

“Now we need to know to respond to these situations ahead of them happening. There are lessons to be learnt. Sport cannot reap all of the rewards and take all the credit without taking the responsibility."

A spokesman for Fifa said it had been working intensively to support the safe evacuation of members of the Afghan sporting family, including 163 deemed at risk. “We have also been in contact with several activists and civil society organisations on other evacuation efforts not led by Fifa of footballers and sports persons, including the one that led to the successful evacuation of women players to Australia."

Queueing to leave: members of the Afghanistan Women's football team and relatives and coaches waiting to be evacuated from Kabul airport in August 2021. Photo: Haley Carter

For the women in Australia, this is not the end of the story. Far from it. Popal explained: “The goal is to get Fifa to allow them to represent Afghanistan.

"The hope and the mission is to get Fifa on board to give recognition to the women of Afghanistan to play and represent their country and play Fifa tournaments. And the hope is to get their families out of Afghanistan.

“Today our players who were evacuated are using their platform again and standing for their sisters who are stuck in Afghanistan who lost their voices and their basic human rights. I am proud of every one of them.”

For Craig, the reluctant hero, the fight for others around the world goes on with a slew of other cases coming up.

But in this story Lindsey is adamant Craig deserves due recognition. “Hundreds of people have been saved, not solely by Kat Craig but it never would have happened without Kat Craig,” she said.

That is some accolade.

Updated: May 27, 2022, 9:21 PM