‘This is a football match, the trophy is to get to the airport gate’ – How Khalida Popal helped rescue women athletes in Afghanistan

“When the Afghanistan government surrendered and the Taliban took over Kabul, I had the choice to sit and cry,” says Khalida Popal. “I could perhaps write a post on social media saying how worried I was for my country and how sorry I am but be happy that I am out of Afghanistan myself.”

Instead, she decided to fight.

“I kept my emotions in check. No more emotion. I don’t have the power to send a plane to Afghanistan. I can’t go myself to Afghanistan and get my players out. But I still have the power – my power is my voice. My voice is strong.”

Using her voice and her determination, Popal – a pioneer of women’s football in Afghanistan and its first national-team captain – and a small team of determined women players and coaches have evacuated dozens of players and their family members out of Afghanistan, where the Taliban have historically not allowed women to play sport. Says Popal, “We have managed to get nearly 80 people out of Afghanistan, which includes players and their families, who are on their way to Australia.”

In the course of several phone conversations over two days, Popal – speaking from her apartment in Denmark – told ESPN about the rescue effort, her frustrations and her hopes and fears beyond the immediate future.

Even after leaving the country for Denmark, following death threats a decade ago, she has been involved in development of the sport in the country. She sees her current responsibility as the most important of her life. Popal, 34, is among a team of FIFPRO lawyers and advisors who have worked with authorities in six countries, including Australia, the U.S. and United Kingdom, to get athletes and their families on evacuation lists and flights to safety.

“We are a small group working day and night to get our first national team and their family members out of Afghanistan,” she said. “We have not slept or eaten, we have not stopped working to get visas, paperwork and get them to the airport.

“It has been so difficult and complex to communicate from outside, to guide them and to encourage them to have the hope. Everyone in the team has had a special role to play. My main role was to reach out to people, seek for help for my girls in Afghanistan. Stay in touch with my girls, my players. Promise them to keep hope. Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope.”

Popal’s voice cracks often during the conversations but she retains her composure.

“My heart could be breaking and I wanted so badly to give up… maybe when all of them are out, I will cry for my country and for people who are fighting for peace and who wanted a better Afghanistan,” she says.

When Popal first heard news of the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of the country’s capital, she got on the phone to members of the national team in Afghanistan.

“I first checked if they were safe,” she said. “And they were safe, but also completely shattered. They kept telling me ‘It is all over’. That’s when I knew I had to do something.”

She immediately advised them to burn their jerseys – once a symbol of national pride but which now would make them easy targets. Then she began making more calls. Aware that she didn’t have the financial resources to help them, she decided to use her connections and reputation built up through her career.

“I started communicating with friends from FIFPRO,” she says of the Netherlands-based organisation representing 65,000 professional footballers across the globe. “I just knew I had to get help to get my girls out. I told them I didn’t know how. I told them, ‘My girls are stuck’. That’s how amazing human beings started coming together to help me.”

She also contacted a small group of associates, including former USA international Kelly Lindsey. Everyone had their designated roles – calling governments, arranging paperwork. Popal, who could speak the local language and who was in touch with the players, coordinated work on the ground.

“I have played the role of a coach from outside,” she said. “Sending them voice messages and receiving their voice messages. I’ve had to give them hope to stay together, stay strong and support each other. And with the support of the Australian and Canadian governments and some people from the USA, we managed to get some of the team out.”

For nearly a week, Popal was on constant alert, saying “The three nights they were trying to get into the airport in Kabul were among the toughest of my life. I sat with my back to the wall, my computer on my lap and both my phone and laptop were constantly on charge. I was calling people, sending voice messages, working with visas. I was playing the middle man. I played a number 10. I had to communicate with my players and I had to give information to the team that was working for me.”

With volunteers spread across the globe, there was not a second to lose.

“We were working day and night. We would have emergencies at 4 or 5 in the morning. I barely slept. And even if I slept for a one-hour window in the 24 hours, when my eyes were shut I felt my phone was buzzing and something had happened to some of my girls. And someone was asking for help,” she says.

Like the captain she once was, Popal had to keep her composure even when things felt as though they were collapsing around her.

“There were two nights where I felt my players were between life and death,” she said. “There are many Taliban checkpoints outside the airport. To get through each checkpoint was a nightmare. In different checkpoints they were beaten by Taliban, they were injured, bleeding, there were gunshots, some of them fainted. I was on the phone with them and I could hear shots going off. These girls were scared. They weren’t sure they would make it. I wasn’t sure if they would make it,”

Indeed, one of Popal’s calls with ESPN on Thursday was punctuated by the news of bomb blasts outside Kabul airport, where thousands of people – including several Popal was trying to evacuate – were still trying to get onto flights. Later, after she saw the devastation, she tweeted her concerns: “This is exactly where our players were last night. I am worried and nervous and feel bad in my stomach. I don’t know if some of our players are here. I am worried.”

A few hours later she would find out to her relief that they were safe. But she had to give them the impression of being confident and in control.

“Some of these girls are 16 or 17 years old,” she said. “They were away from most of their family members and they weren’t sure they were going to survive. I was feeling sick to my stomach because I was so afraid of losing them but I was trying not to show it in my voice.

“I was trying to be positive and say, ‘We are a football team, this is a football match. We are going to win. This is the final and we are going to win the championships we are playing and we will get the trophy. The trophy is to get to the gate. We have to get to the [US] soldiers. We have to get out of Afghanistan. That was the way to motivate them.”

It wasn’t easy, the morale of those in Afghanistan understandably had low moments.

“Many of them were crying. They were saying ‘I am tired. My body can’t move forward. It hurts. I am suffering from pain. They (the Taliban) have beaten me.’ But then they said ‘I will not give up. I will move forward.’ That’s what I said to them as well. No matter what, we are going forward. This is our only chance for freedom. This is our only chance for a respectable life. We are going towards freedom,” she says.

What particularly moved Popal was the team spirit among the players.

“‘We are going to go as a team,’ they told me. ‘We will take our last person. We will not leave anybody behind.’ This is the way I have motivated them,” she said. “This is the beautiful thing I have learned from football – we won’t leave anyone behind. ‘Even if one of us fainted, we will carry them with us,’ they told me. They have shown leadership, they have shown teamwork. They have stuck together. If one group made it to the gate, they told the others how to get there.”

Popal seemed genuinely amazed at the success of her efforts.

“Honestly I didn’t know what to do. I am not a rescue person,” she said. “I’ve never been a rescue person. I don’t know what is the correct way of encouraging people not to give up. The only thing I learned from football is how to keep the team moving and keeping on fighting. Keep staying positive and not giving up. I used the beautiful side of football during the two nights when they were in the hands of the enemy.”

Popal was perhaps using her own experience in helping others. She fled Afghanistan a decade ago after her activism made her the target of multiple death threats. She crossed the border to Pakistan and then made her way to India before finding refuge in Denmark.

She then helped other members of the national team escape from the country after allegations of sexual abuse were made against the then head of the Afghan Football Federation. (The president, Keramuddin Karim, was in 2019 banned for life from all football-related activities after a FIFA investigation found him guilty of “having abused his position and sexually abused various female players, in violation of the FIFA code of ethics”.)

This evacuation was far more challenging, Popal says.

“When I fled myself, I was in great danger,” she said. “That was terrifying because I was experiencing the fear myself. Then in 2018, when I helped a group of players flee, the international community still had a lot of military in Afghanistan. But this time, it was the most dangerous, because the Taliban had so much power and they were shooting at people. I had no control of what was happening on the ground. The Taliban had the gun. They were taking phones from players. In Afghanistan a woman who plays football is doing something revolutionary. An Afghan woman footballer is very recognizable and every one of them has a target on her.”

While she is astounded at what she and the small group she has been working with have been able to achieve, Popal is disappointed at what she says is the lack of support from FIFA, the IOC and other international sport organisations.

“We (the women leading the evacuation) were nobodies. I am just a footballer. I’m not in government,” she said. “Kelly is a coach. We had no power in government and yet we could come together and do so much. What I’m upset about is that FIFA, the IOC, all these big football federations – the Asian Football Confederation – didn’t reach out in the beginning; they reached out when the media started questioning FIFA’s inaction. The only thing they said was that they were monitoring the situation. They knew the players lives were in danger and they didn’t even reach out.

“I’m desperately looking to get more people out. And I can’t because the situation got worse. But people who had the power and connections didn’t think fast enough. They just made statements. Had these organisations joined us in the beginning, they could have helped us…They had strong connections, they had a strong network. They could speed up the process. But they didn’t.”

Even as she continues to work to get more players out, Popal can’t help but feel the pang of regret. When she had started playing, she says, there were a total of five women’s footballers in Afghanistan. Popal herself first played on a football ground that was once used by the Taliban to execute women for crimes like adultery.

“We grew and grew from that number. This month we had 4,000 girls registered and playing across the country. We didn’t just have a national team but teams playing in different provinces,” she says.

All of that is over – at least for the moment.

“All the achievements, all the hard work, sacrifices I made in my life. It has been a tough fight, a non-stop fight for me. I’ve never had the time just to breathe and relax. I continued working for development of women’s football even after I fled the country and the sad thing is that it just vanished. All those achievements are gone. It’s almost like it never happened,” she says.

But there is one testament to that legacy.

“When I started playing women’s football,” she said, “it was for the purpose of standing for our voiceless sisters who have had their voices taken from them by the Taliban, by the Islamic state and by people following Sharia law. We stood strong. Many amazing women joined me. The purpose of the women’s football team was to set up a foundation where women could stand and fight for each other. It gave me a voice. I used that voice to help women escape the Taliban.”

Despite all she has gone through, Popal refuses to cry.

“When I spoke to the first group of players to fly out of Afghanistan, they started crying because they were so happy. But I said to them, this is not yet the time to cry. Once we reach a calm, safe place, then we can cry. We will talk about our pain then,” she says.

It’s only then that’s she’ll tell them that they’ve won the toughest match of their lives. Indeed, players from Afghanistan women’s national team were among a group of more than 75 people evacuated on a flight from Kabul this week.

“I am so proud of each member of my team that has made it to Australia,” she said. “They are the strongest human beings I have ever met and they are amazing women of Afghanistan. They are fighters. They went through so much pain but they never gave up.”

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