Melbourne, Australia: The pitch of Melbourne Victory. This is not a team like any other. It’s the Afghan Women’s National Football Team.
Despite its restrictive asylum policy the Australian government has granted visas for this team. In an extraordinary effort including several human rights organisations such as Human Rights for All and FIFPRO plus the help of individuals like the former Crystal Palace and Portsmouth defender Craig Foster and the former Afghan captain Khalida Popal, the Afghan Women’s National Team managed to escape from Kabul to Melbourne.
Melbourne is situated around 11,000 kilometres away from Kabul and both worlds couldn’t be more apart. Australia’s largest football club, Melbourne Victory, welcomed the Afghan women with a licence to compete in the lowest division. The players confirmed feeling stronger in Australia. They can do whatever they want and intend to do their best with all the possibilities, which are offered to them.
Life under the Taliban, a perilous escape and the beginning of a new life in Melbourne
NATO troops left Afghanistan in August 2021, consolidating Taliban control. For women and girls, Afghanistan became more and more hopeless, even life-threatening. Fatima Yousufi, the team’s captain and goalkeeper says “Women’s rights, earned painfully over 20 years, have been wound back.”
Under the Taliban rule women and girls are even denied basic human rights. They are not allowed to leave the house by themselves, can’t go to school from a certain age and are only allowed in certain professions. Sport is frowned upon by the Taliban regime prohibiting women to partake in any sport discipline.
The escape to Melbourne was utterly painful. Fatima Yousufi recalls the sounds of children screaming at Kabul airport. Everybody was terrified and running to get out of the country. Fatima still suffers from the fact that she had to leave her parents and youngest sister behind.
Through their hardship the Afghan team has built up a strong bond described by the women as, ‘One for all and all for one.’ That’s our team. To have obtained a license for playing football is not the ultimate goal for the Afghan National team. They stand for their return on the international stage and their official recognition.
A continuous fight for international recognition
However, FIFA doesn’t officially recognize the Afghan Women’s National Football team. John Didulica, sports director of Melbourne Victory points out that this is absurd, if FIFA intends to take human rights seriously.
When Australia hosted the Women’s World Cup 2023, the Afghan National team could only watch it from the sideline. They have not featured in the FIFA’s women’s team rankings since the beginning of 2022. The team made several requests to FIFA which remained unanswered. Furthermore, Khalida Popal released an article in a joint initiative with Nobel Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai in the Guardian in January 2023 as a public call for recognition.
The Afghan Women’s Team continued their efforts on this stony path for recognition by hosting the inaugural Hope Cup on the 18 July 2023 just two days before the opening match of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. They played against Football Empowerment, a team consisting members from Melbourne’s refugee communities.
They have played two seasons in Victoria’s State League. They have continued to rise, winning 1-0 over Endeavor United SC in their promotion playoff in September. The team won the Women’s State League 3 Play-Off Final. The FIFA international recognition they long for has still not arrived though.
Yet, the team’s hopes don’t stop there. Defender Mursal Sadat summarizes their aspirations in the following way: ‘I have lots of dreams for my future but the most important one is to play for the Afghanistan national team once again and see Afghanistan as an unrestricted country.’