'Heartbreaking': FIFA urges countries to rehome Afghan athletes

Anne Levasseur, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 27 2021 09:25 AM

Players of Afghanistan's national women's football team stand near the Belem Tower in Lisbon, Portugal, September 29, 2021. Rodrigo Antunes, Reuters.
Players of Afghanistan's national women's football team stand near the Belem Tower in Lisbon, Portugal, September 29, 2021. Rodrigo Antunes, Reuters.

DOHA, Qatar -- FIFA is calling on the international community to step up efforts to help permanently rehome Afghan athletes after the Taliban takeover of their country, its president Gianni Infantino said.

More than 150 members of Afghanistan's sports community -- including 50 female footballers -- and their families were evacuated this month with the help of Qatar, in coordination with the global football body.

Hundreds remain in Afghanistan, pleading for help to leave the country.

"I really call on all the governments in Europe, in the rest of the world, to help us (in) getting a new house, a new home" for those evacuated, Infantino told AFP in an interview.

"We cannot just talk about solidarity, we cannot just talk about helping. We have to do it concretely," he said in Doha.

"They went through something that none of us can imagine, and we managed to get them out."

The Taliban overthrew Afghanistan's former US-backed government in August and have since been trying to win backing and financial support for their Islamist regime, promising a more flexible rule than last time.

But with some women still effectively banned from work, fear of reprisals for practicing sport is widespread.

And although they have yet to publicize a formal policy on women in sport, the Taliban have made comments that indicate serious participation will be impossible.

- 'Girls are also human' -

When they last ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned women from sporting activity and even going to matches.

Sports stadiums were regularly used for public executions.

The all-male Taliban government has shut down the ministry of women's affairs and replaced it with one that earned notoriety for enforcing religious doctrine during the hardliners' first stint in power.

The Taliban have since denied the removal of the ministry, insisting they were "arranging a framework for it".

Joyce Cook, FIFA's chief social responsibility and education officer, said the 158 people from the sports community and their families would head from Doha to Albania until a permanent solution is reached.

They are part of a list of 545 people who are seeking to leave, she said.

"We really need countries to come forward now," Cook told AFP, adding that the "biggest challenge now is to find permanent countries" for their resettlement.

"FIFA has 211 member associations, that's 211 countries, and we're calling on all of those countries to help us now."

In Afghanistan, women have long faced open hostility to their involvement in sport and, in rural areas, it is extremely rare for them to participate.

Even in cities, many women's leagues are at a fledgling stage.

One 24-year-old woman who has been playing with the national football team since 2011 said everything changed for her when the Taliban seized power in mid-August.

"There are very narrow-minded people (who think) girls are nothing... I want to show them that girls are also human... this is why I joined football," she said, declining to be identified.

"It was hard, even for my family... slowly, slowly they started to support me, but sometimes the situation became tough," said the woman, who is also a young medical professional and used to run a clinic in Afghanistan.

- Dreaming of Canada -

With arms and legs full of bruises from training on concrete for hours on end, she said football was "like a relaxing medicine".

Using water bottles to mark their goals, her team now plays in flip-flops and jeans in a compound in Doha, all sharing the same hopes.

"I and the other girls with me, we have a dream that we will go to Canada," she said.

Some members of the Afghan women's youth football team and their families have already sought refuge in Portugal and are back training in the Lisbon suburbs.

"If Canada, United States, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand... if they could give us a signal and welcome some of these girls, I think it would be a fantastic message of solidarity and unity that only football can bring," Infantino said.

Australia and New Zealand are hosting the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2023, while the US, Mexico and Canada will host the 2026 men's World Cup.

For Cook, the stories of the Afghan athletes reflect "a humanitarian tragedy".

"It's heartbreaking to hear their stories. And it's heartbreaking to try to be in their shoes and try to imagine how they must be feeling," she said.

"These are people who deserve to be able to start a new life."

© Agence France-Presse