Founded in 1994, the Afghan Football Federation has been at the forefront of developing the sport of football in the country.
Afghanistan’s football association was notorious for corruption and scandals throughout its early years. As a result, the 1984 World Cup soccer tournament was controversially awarded to the country.
The sport was used as a tool to aid U.S. foreign policy in the country. Under the guidance of former soccer players and advisors to the CIA, the Soviet Union and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Afghan FA adopted a kafala system which increased corruption. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the kafala system was legalized.
Following the rise of the Taliban in 1996, kafala was completely abandoned. Under the first Taliban government, players were nationalized, and there was no conflict in practicing for soccer.
During the rule of the Taliban, female athletes like women’s swimming champion Sonia Ochieng and wheelchair tennis star Baghina Balbacha were banned from practicing for sport.
The Taliban began kidnapping football players and forcing them to practice in a makeshift field. (In a surprise move, Shahid Noorzai, a former Afghan National soccer coach, fled to Pakistan shortly after Taliban took power in 1996 and immediately requested asylum.)
With the rise of global attention and the deaths of known Taliban members and supporters during the 2001 U.S. invasion, it’s reported that the sport of football finally became a focus for the Taliban. Now, many members of the Taliban have been spotted training at a ground in Kabul.
They are using the sport as a form of rehabilitation for themselves and their family after decades of persecution and suppression.
It was in this backdrop that Khalida Popal, a 55-year-old Afghan woman, became the first woman to ever play a senior football match in her country’s history.
“Of course I played football – I don’t care how I scored, it’s good to play and train as a football player,” Popal told Fox News. “Sometimes I would lose, but I worked hard and learned more.”
It was in the midst of the assault on Kabul in 2001 that Popal became the first woman to have a shot at the team. She scored on her first attempt.
“I did it so that women can see how a football team was being formed in a country where they didn’t even have an association in their country,” Popal said.
With U.S. assistance, the women’s football team qualified for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan.
“It was the first time I could really relax on the pitch in my soccer career – I didn’t get to play much in the 1990s and in my final year I thought, ‘I am already old now, can I really play on the pitch now?’ ” Popal said.
After her retirement from the team, Popal served as a United Nations Development Program youth ambassador promoting tolerance and acceptance of all genders and ethnicities.
She set up the Afghan FA’s Sport, Children and Youth office in 2002.
“My dream was to help the women get a better education,” Popal said. “I believe all women in Afghanistan are very talented. The only thing we lack are opportunities.”
After Popal’s call to service to her community, many Afghan footballers were awarded scholarships to study at universities in the U.S. The Afghanistan-based American-based soccer club United Soccer League led the way.
“[I]t was the beginning of something great,” Popal said. “The first team was able to help bring the revolution of equality.”
Now, in the years of constant fighting and conflict, the sport has become a missing piece of the puzzle.
“Afghanistan needs something,” Popal said. “Soccer has given us international respect and it brings us together as one.”
Follow Khalida Popal on Twitter @KhalidaPopla.