Afghanistan. A country devastated by war. A breeding ground for extremism and terror. A nation with an unwavering association to Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. A politically unstable landscape eternally engulfed in both domestic and international turmoil.
These are the thoughts most frequently invoked in any discourse of Afghanistan, and one would be hard pressed to make even the faintest of associations with football, practically a non-entity in a country still reeling from years of political unrest.
To put this into context, the Afghan men’s national team enter in a lowly 145th on the FIFA world rankings, while the Afghan Premier League — comprising eight sides — only came to the fore in 2012. Suffice it to say football isn’t yet a fully fledged sport.
Football, however, isn’t exclusively for men, as the burgeoning popularity of the women’s game suggests. Dig beneath the deeply entrenched conflict that inundates Afghanistan and you find a phenomenal group of women striving to challenge gender stereotypes, driven by their passion for the game and risking their lives on a daily basis by doing what they love.
And there’s one woman instrumental to this possibility, yet she has never even visited.
“I said yes. And now here we are”
A former player for the San Jose CyberRays (2001-03) and the United States women’s national team (2000-02), Kelly Lindsey saw persistent knee injuries curtail a promising professional career.
A transition into sports leadership beckoned, but little did she know that 13 years later she would find herself coaching a team of Afghan women who want nothing more than to play football.
How did you learn about their plight? “The captain was my assistant coach for a week and she was telling me stories about the programme. At that point in my life I realised that I had to help them.”
At first, Lindsey offered to host a camp, but her efforts proved futile. Despite organising accommodation and providing food, the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) inexplicably ceased communication two weeks before they were due to arrive and the camp never materialised.
So, what happened next? “Eventually Khalida Popal [the programme and event director of the women’s national team] called me two months after. She was still learning at the time and she said; ‘Do you know what we really need? We need a coach. We need someone who can really help our girls, who can teach us how to be a national team.’ I said yes. And now here we are.”
“You have to do everything”
Coaching a women’s national team in a war-torn country expectedly comes with a diverse plethora of challenges, not least of which is the AFF. Far from the organised, supportive bodies of the western world — in itself a contentious point — Lindsey is stranded in the footballing wilderness, left to fend for herself and her team.
“I think one of the biggest things people need to understand is that although we have the support from the federation, it’s like we’re our own federation.”
Lindsey backtracks. She clarifies that the situation, simply, in Afghanistan is this: “If you want to build a women’s programme, you have to do everything.”
“If you look at anyone with a growth plan,” she continues, “It’s almost always this triangle shape” with grassroots football at the bottom. “I took a little napkin, I drew the triangle and I flipped it upside down.”
Referencing the senior team at the top of the pyramid, Lindsey regretfully explains that the process of growth is “the complete opposite of every other federation.”
“We only have one team and we are going the opposite way. We are trying to build through that one team, to show the country that their mindset can change, that girls can play sport, so we can get to a point where more girls can play and there’s more opportunity.”
However, inspiring a change in the overarching mindset of an entire country, let alone a swell in grassroots football, requires consistency, as Lindsey notes.
“If the federation really wanted to build women’s football, we would be hosting at least three camps per year and the federation would be helping us set up games. Every time we’ve done that we’ve been super successful, but the federation sees it as ‘you can do this once a year.’”
The team frequently receive the minimum level of support from the AFF, but it’s seemingly a case of ticking a yearly box, subsequently failing to provide clarity on the future direction of women’s football in Afghanistan.
“You never know what tomorrow will bring,” Lindsey laments. “We just need some consistency. Consistent leadership and support is probably the biggest thing.”
“Success is a much smaller avenue”
Despite the implicit difficulties of coaching football in a country wherein women are expected to be the homemakers and child-bearers, it’s important to take solace in the fact that victory is achieved in even the smallest of things.
“I think every camp I’ve walked away from feeling successful regardless of what the score of the game was. I try to set up our year where it’s almost like every year is the only year. So day one, can we get a little better? And then the next camp, we’re going to focus on something else.” For Lindsey, “success is a much smaller avenue.”
The Afghan women’s team have nonetheless crept up the FIFA world rankings in her tenure, which is an important indication of progress for the players, providing a tangible sense of worth to their treacherous endeavours. Especially, as Lindsey surmises, “on those days where it just sucks for them.”
To put it bluntly, they probably won’t win the FIFA World Cup, as it’s simply too unrealistic, but on-pitch matters pale in comparison to a far more transcendental goal.
“They’re trying to put their country on the map, to build something that the people of their country are proud of. We also have to understand that when they are on the field, it’s a moment of freedom. They don’t often get to hear their national anthem for them, so it’s a very special moment.”
“They’re choosing to put their lives in danger”
In itself remarkable and undoubtedly a victory, but incremental progress is insufficient in allaying the outdated and backwards perception of women still relentlessly propagated in Afghanistan.
Unlike the footballing heroes of the United States and beyond, those so vigorously idolised they’re veiled in the mythological, the reality for women footballers in Afghanistan, Lindsey explains, is “the opposite.”
“It’s different from the West. People don’t want to be a part of their lives. If you choose to be an athlete, you are already viewed as not a woman. In that culture, getting married and having kids is still very much the mindset.”
Such was the outrage, the freedom to play football wasn’t the playground privilege it is in the West. No longer was the choice simply between pursuing a dream or adhering to the norm. Instead it became one of life or death.
“These women are not only choosing to put their lives in danger, they’re also choosing to take a completely different path to what their families and culture are used to. They’re isolating themselves, hoping that everything works out, just because they have a passion to play football.”
Pursuing their dreams leaves them deserted. Their family members, too, are ostracised from society and threatened, while hate, prejudice and violence feature all too regularly in the players’ daily lives. Hence, the need to host training camps abroad in countries that both welcome and champion females athletes.
“You know there’s some sort of turmoil that they’ve lived with for so long and it’s so deeply ingrained in them. These girls could have been abused in the streets. They could have been abused by external family members. There are things things that have happened in society that I can’t even imagine. I hear it daily and I still can’t put myself in their shoes.”
“I can put my life on the line”
Lindsey has never been to Afghanistan, but that doesn’t imply immunity from danger. Even at home, she’s subjected to prejudice. Given the current political climate and the racially charged rhetoric Donald Trump engenders, she’s forced to think about her own safety in the United States.
Lindsey recalls one particular instance wherein she debated wearing her Afghanistan-branded team jacket out in California. She said: “I thought; ‘Should I wear this into the grocery store?’”
That, however, was her moment of clarity.
“Catching myself doing that was also catching my own ignorance. I’m actually really proud of Afghanistan and all the people from this country that I’ve met. I have no reason to not wear this jacket.”
Describing the moment as a turning point, it prompted an important realisation that if her players can risk their lives, so can she.
“If they can put their lives on the line, I can put my life on the line. We’re putting ourselves in danger at some points, but it’s part of what it means to work with this country.”
Deriving from the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, which kick-started the ongoing military involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, any positive association with the country has been met with scepticism. The lasting effects of this conflict are still felt today, polluting the perception of what Lindsey is trying to achieve.
“There are some people who are very supportive and then there are others that are kind of ashamed. I think there are a lot of people in the US that don’t really want to give to the cause.” Their argument? That America needs help domestically, so she should not be helping those in Afghanistan.
“I want to be in the country coaching”
Lindsey’s path is dangerous and negatively perceived by some within the United States, but she’s unerringly determined to continue making a difference and building opportunity.
“Creating opportunities for these women is my passion. I would love nothing more than to step into the country and coach there full time. To me that’s how we make the biggest change. I believe that if we were on the ground in the country, we could show how beautiful and amazing it is when these girls are playing football together and how much this helps the country, the culture and these families.”
The World Cup, too, is on her list of priorities for the future, but the understanding is that the end goal is something far more elusive, but one that consequently has a superior impact.
“I hope that we’re in a completely different place than we are now, and the girls are driving their own futures and have a voice to make a difference to their country. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but if we invest in it, I think we’ll see some really positive and amazing things comes out of this region.”
If football is the medium, tangible progress in changing the perception of women in Afghanistan is the goal. Her role goes beyond that of the average coach. It’s not a case of winning games and silverware, though it does help her efforts. Instead she is out to alter mindsets and provide women opportunities that are otherwise denied because of their birthplace.
“You did nothing right or wrong, you were just born,” is Lindsey’s message. “It’s opened my eyes to how important it is to keep building opportunity. I want these women to do amazing things in their life, and I’m hoping football is the vehicle to give them the confidence to do that.”
Football alone will not lead to peace and gender equality in a war-torn and impoverished country, but Lindsey and her brave group of women footballers are making a notable difference.
Thank you to Nick Friend for conducting the interview.
You can donate to the Afghanistan women’s national team HERE.
Featured photograph/Kelly Lindsey