• Grandmother describes how no player was immune from Taliban control • A player was even shot dead just after scoring the winning goal
The former Afghan footballer Khalida Popal, who served as captain of the country’s national team from 1999 to 2004, has spoken of her dismay at the gradual loss of freedom of speech in her homeland. Popal has written a searingly honest account of what life was like under the Taliban’s reign, including the time she described as “the worst night of my life”.
As head of the women’s section of the football federation during the Taliban’s reign, Popal regularly encouraged female athletes to become involved in sports. She participated in several tournaments in 1990 and was awarded the Arif Hafiz prize for helping to develop the women’s game. But in 1998, when her husband of a year became ill, she was forced to stop training because the Taliban had banned sportswomen from participating in sport.
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When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, Popal tried to organise the country’s only professional women’s football team, the Lashkar Gah Haji Lal Watadiya, but their attempts were repeatedly vetoed by religious courts who thought the women who would need to coach and play were “unclean”. In response, the team refused to play but instead used a different team of young men to train with them, and used their full names.
In August 2001, the Taliban left the country but Popal soon began to notice that she was more and more vulnerable. In particular, when the former footballer was driving one night from her home in Lashkar Gah to Kabul, the Taliban put up a roadblock and violently resisted her attempt to pass on her old address. They prevented her from using her mobile phone, and when she tried to drive on two occasions, they stopped her and confiscated it.
“The whole experience lasted for a week,” Popal recalls. “No one else on the team was immune from it.” The Taliban eventually gave up and agreed that she could pass through their town.
After the fall of the Taliban, Popal briefly lived in the international airport compound in Kabul. Here, too, she was pursued by those who despised women’s involvement in sports. She found herself accompanying a coach for a winter camp in a remote part of the country as they drove along what she describes as the worst road she had ever seen.
It was one of the coaches, she says, who told her about a young Afghan girl who had been abducted and raped at gunpoint while playing football, only to die at the hands of her abuser. For days, the coach had lied to her, telling her not to tell anyone, because the Taliban had insisted that any girl who ran off to play football was an infidel. Then he told her the horrible truth, and Popal raced home to wait for a telephone call confirming the girl’s death.
“Football was a very simple game,” she says, “but this ended the way it began – with shame.”