Former Afghan footballer Khalida Popal speaks out on her country’s fall to the Taliban
Former Afghan football captain Khalida Popal, who was captain of the national team during their 2003 and 2004 World Cup campaigns, has spoken out about her country’s fall to the Taliban.
Khalida Popal is now coach of the Afghan national team. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters
The team’s midfielder, who is now coach of the Afghan women’s national team, has also been cast by her team-mates as “Afghanistan’s Hope” because of her outspoken views.
“In my conversations with youths in jails, some are worried about the prospect of being sent back to Afghanistan by US-led Nato forces,” Popal told the Guardian. “They know that they will be outcast by their own families and the Taliban will kill them and burn their houses.”
She added: “The same concerns are shared by our relatives – those who fought the Taliban in the war are now widows, fathers, sons, brothers.
“With the nation’s eyes set on the international spotlight, there is no doubt that Afghans will also face the threat of violence at home. But the reality is different. If security measures are put in place, they can remain in their homes and work freely while still respecting Afghan and international law.”
A renewed insurgency in 2014, which began after foreign troops abandoned their posts in Afghanistan, has claimed thousands of lives – mostly civilians – while undermining efforts to assert the country’s independence from the neighbouring Pakistan.
Popal, who served in the Afghan national football team until 2004, has previously faced the Taliban in her capacity as a politician, NGO worker and two-time presidential candidate.
In 2016, Popal challenged them to take her to Afghanistan’s basketball stadium, hoping they would not attack it after it was targeted in a number of suicide bombings in recent years.
She was welcomed by President Ashraf Ghani at Kabul’s international airport, and toured the stadium, where dozens of people still died in bombings since 2014. Popal’s security team escorted her into the stadium, where dozens of girls and women in the audience were her age.
Women and girls wear the hijab as they attend a football match in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters
“My football team was waiting for me to arrive and we were all hopeful I would speak about the security situation here and Pakistan,” Popal said. “Instead, I was greeted by a speech from the president. I felt very heartbroken.
“Of course, I wasn’t pleased about this, but I had no choice. I had to be here for the president’s speech.”
Ghani, who recently unveiled Afghanistan 2020, his election manifesto, encouraged Popal to allow people to wear their “badar and burqini” during his speech, which was widely criticised for being patronising. Popal, a married mother of two, says she feels pressured to conceal her identity and body.
“I am Afghan and I have lived in this country for 18 years,” she said. “Being Afghan means facing many struggles. I know you must be careful if you want to be on TV and have your face on the front page of newspapers and on the front page of photos. That’s why I don’t want to talk about Pakistan.
“My family and most of my friends know where I am coming from but I don’t think this situation will improve. I have been working in the field of human rights and I have seen my sisters abused and the politicians, the leaders of this country are all talking about protecting women’s rights. They’re yet to stop using violence against our sisters, men and children.”
Popal, who is awaiting a decision on whether the Wifaq, Afghanistan’s national opposition party, can register as a party, expects protests over the Taliban to increase over the summer. She fears more civilians will be targeted in the name of their religion.
“The big problem will be women and girls’ safety, the siege of Afghanistan, the fear of parents of young girls,” she said. “But I also feel sad that these are girls who have no others to talk about. Who would they talk to?”