Afghan women's football squad granted UK visas

Youth team will be resettled in Britain after escaping their home country for Pakistan

Young Afghan footballers were given floral garlands after arriving in Lahore, Pakistan, a month after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. AFP
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A group of young female footballers from Afghanistan will be resettled in the UK after a successful campaign to help them escape the Taliban.

Members of the women’s youth team left their home country for Pakistan last month, where they were granted temporary visas.

But the players feared being forced to return to Afghanistan, and won support from a variety of backers as they sought to move to Britain.

They included Premier League club Leeds United, MP and Afghanistan veteran Tom Tugendhat and the charity Football for Peace.

Late on Saturday, former Afghan football captain Khalida Popal revealed that the UK had agreed to become their host country.

“These girls deserve the best,” she said. “They have been through a lot. They have the right to dream.

“So grateful to the UK government for hearing our voices in providing asylum to my strong girls.”

Two of the players, Narges and Sabria, told Sky News that their lives had been saved. “We are eternally grateful to all,” they said.

The two women had earlier told the broadcaster that they had been threatened by the Taliban before leaving Afghanistan.

“The only thing all of us know is that we don't want to go back to Afghanistan again,” said Narges, 18.

Women were heavily restricted under the Taliban’s earlier rule in Afghanistan, and the militants have moved to limit their activities since retaking power.

Ms Popal made history as the first Afghan women’s captain in 2007 but fled the country in 2011 after her brother and coach both came under attack.

The Afghanistan women’s team is ranked 152nd in the world, having reached a peak of 106th in 2017.

Britain has emphasised protecting the rights of women and girls as a key condition for any dealings with the Taliban.

Kashif Siddiqi, the co-founder of Football for Peace, said there were 111 Afghan players and coaches waiting for a visa.

“Without Britain they faced a return to the nightmare that is Afghanistan,” he said this week.

“Every single visa approved is a life enhanced, the right to education protected and the freedom to play football preserved.”

The charity said it helped persuade Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, a retired cricketer and sporting icon, to grant 30-day visas to the footballers.

The young players were greeted with flower garlands when they arrived in Lahore, Pakistan, after crossing Afghanistan’s northern border.

Some of the footballers who arrived in Pakistan last month and were given temporary visas in the country. AFP

Leeds United offered to give all the players a place on its youth development teams and said it was ready to “give the girls a prosperous and peaceful future”.

Britain plans to take in 20,000 Afghans over five years who are regarded as particularly vulnerable to the Taliban.

That is in addition to the thousands of people who were evacuated from Kabul during the two-week Nato airlift in August.

Some Afghan athletes were evacuated to Australia after the fall of Kabul, but their long-term future is unclear. Others went to Portugal.

European countries want to help Pakistan, and other countries that neighbour Afghanistan, to absorb some of the refugees fleeing the Taliban.

Red Cross humanitarian staff are working on the basis that up to half a million Afghans could leave the country in the coming months.

Updated: October 10, 2021, 2:01 PM