Khalida Popal, who helped set up Afghanistan's women’s national football team wants 'women and girls to dream'.
Khalida Popal's story is one of courage, strength and scant reliance on men. “If we wait for men to open the doors of opportunity - it will take forever,” laughs the former Afghanistan football captain, as she joins Telegraph Sport on International Women's Day to share her story.
Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Popal recalls her childhood as education-focused and optimistic. “Growing up I never lacked opportunity,” she says. “My grandparents were both engineers, my mother was a school teacher, and my father worked in the military services. Education and sport were a big part of my life. The Afghanistan I was born in was very different to the one it became.”
Popal smiles as she shares fond memories of her hometown. Back then, the streets of Kabul were her “playground". Wherever her three brothers went, Popal followed, playing everything from football to athletics - she took part in it all.
That was until the Taliban started to take control of Afghanistan in 1996. As their presence strengthened, restrictions followed; television and music were banned, and girls over the age of 10 were no longer permitted to attend school. For Popal's family, this reality was very different from the one in which they had raised their children. Thus as Popal approached her 10th birthday, her family made the decision to move to Pakistan and it was there Popal found her love for football again. As things appeared to settle in Afghanistan, the family returned and Popal's desire to continue playing football far outweighed the restrictions put in place by the regime. “I knew I couldn’t play with my brothers but that didn’t mean I couldn’t play, right?” says Popal as she shakes her head, amused by the sheer audacity of her challenging attitude as a teenager. “It started small - first a few girls in my class, then the neighbouring class and so on.” Football was escapism. It provided a sense of relief and distraction from the unpleasant realities that existed outside of the school walls. “It’s crazy because for a few minutes you forget. When you are playing football, you're too excited, you scream and celebrate - there's so much passion,” she says. “Surrounded by these walls, we were happy. Even though there was a war outside.”
As the noise projected beyond the walls and the demand for football increased, the girls were faced with harassment. “We’d be called prostitutes, and told we were a bad image for our country,” Popal’s voice cracks at the memory and she pauses to compose herself. “In those moments I thought - what more do women need to do to be left alone to play football?” Popal was fighting a system much bigger than her. Refusing to be silenced, she took her voice to the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee and successfully set up its first ever women’s national team, in 2007.
At 18 years of age, Popal returned to Pakistan – to play against them for the women’s national team of Afghanistan. It was a triumph for such a young girl who had persisted for change. “It was beautiful and the first time many of the girls had travelled. We walked into the stadium, with the national anthem playing, hand over our chests and just smiled. For the first time, it felt like we were recognised.”
From the highs of captaining her country in their first ever international competition, Popal admits she wasn’t expecting a heroes' welcome on their return to Afghanistan, but was saddened when many of the girls had to stop going to school due to threats of abuse. “People would say ‘football is not for girls’,” she says, with frustration.
But the more misogyny and sexism she experienced, the more determined Popal was to persist with football. Away from the pitch, she became the first female board member and employee in the history of the Afghanistan Football Federation.
For many, the Afghanistan women’s football team stood as a symbol of perseverance and resilience in challenging circumstances. However, in 2019, following an investigation by Fifa, former Afghanistan Football Federation president, Keramuudin Karim, was banned for life from all football-related activity and fined a million Swiss francs as he was found guilty of “having abused his position and sexually abused various female players, in violation of the Fifa code of ethics”.
“That was a very difficult time for us all. By talking about the corruption in the industry and wanting to hold people accountable we were risking our lives. I had to escape in order to survive,” she says. Popal spoke out for the players of the national team who were victims of the abuse. She shared how many felt that they couldn't speak out but she was prepared to ensure their voices were heard. She paid a high price and eventually sought refuge in Denmark.
With no signs of slowing down, she has shown tenacity and persistence to continue her passion for football. She ran sports sessions to pass time in the refugee camp which eventually led to ‘Girl Power’ - a non-profit grassroots organization founded in 2014. The organisation now works across 10 countries - dedicated to using sport and education to empower women and girls.
“I could have quit football after everything that happened but my purpose is not defined by me only being with the national team of Afghanistan,” she says. Popal now works full-time for FC Nordsjælland - a professional Danish football team - which became the first professional club to be acquired by the Right To Dream Group.
The global academy is dedicated to providing equal opportunity in football for children across the world. Her ruthless refusal to quit has allowed her to navigate the world of social activism and sport. Popal says her experiences - the good and the bad - are what motivates her to be an advocate for equality.
“If we all leave football after every challenge and problems faced - who will fix it? I want to create an opportunity for the younger generation to dream,” she says. “I want to dare women and girls to dream. And I don't want them to stop dreaming.”
Khalida Popal is the founder of the Girl Power Organisation and is also the Commercial & Women’s Football Coordinator at Right to Dream and FC Nordsjælland - https://www.righttodream.com