Farkhunda was a protester going through hard times in mid-August. A year after the Taliban seized power, the Afghan player for the new women’s soccer team Fortuna Sittard continues to walk out of the cafeteria during lunch. “All kinds of memories come to mind. And then I will be in a peaceful and safe country. Can you imagine what it evokes in the people of Afghanistan itself? One of my teammates came and asked if I was okay. I said why I was sad. She was very supportive. If I needed To anything, I had to tell you that. So sweet.”
Physically, a protester is also having a rough start at Sittard. After the injury, she was fully training for the first time on the day of this interview. But before matches start, the 24-year-old 1.60m-tall midfielder takes to the changing rooms with palpable fury over the new injury. Moments later I came out for a wetting On the exercise bike in front of the door. “I hope to be able to play again soon,” said needy.
With the Fortuna Sittard, Limburg has a women’s Eredivisie team for the first time. At the start of the season, in mid-September, you have to get serious right away: first against Ajax, then at home against Feyenoord. Young talents play in Fortuna with more experienced players, including some Belgian internationals and a protester, the captain of the Afghanistan national team.
Coach Roger Regner knows women’s football. From 2010 to 2015 he was the national coach of Orange. He finds it difficult to assess the position of his team. Assessing a protester is more difficult due to her injuries during preparation. “But she clearly has tremendous motivation. And her human resume demands respect. As a club you have to make room for that. She is definitely a role model.”
This position for the club, combined with Sittard’s ambitions, convinced a needy to sign a contract at Sittard. “And I’ve always followed Dutch football. It’s based on possession. I like it.”
I grew up in Canada, and played at a high level there. Were there other options for you?
“The level is high in Canada, but it’s semi-professional. Here you have the full pros. And Europe is of course the cradle of football. I want to get the best of myself on all fronts, because my parents and other Afghans have never had that opportunity.”
Your father and mother left Afghanistan at a young age.
During the civil war in the 1990s, they fled to Pakistan. There they lived for a while without valid papers. I was born there. We were allowed into Canada when I was second.”
What role did Afghan culture play during your childhood?
“At home we were speaking Farsi. I could read and write it. We ate food, listened to music, learned about the country and all its beauty. I’ve always been a proud Afghan. It wasn’t always easy. The news gave people a one-sided picture: only war. Since I was six or seven years old, I have always had to be on the defensive when it comes to my country.”
What about the Islamic faith?
We used our religion as a guide. I am a proud and happy Muslim that my father showed me its benefits. This is where my disciplinary action comes from. We must pray five times a day. He must donate money to charity. From an early age, my parents involved us in supporting humanitarian projects for the vulnerable.”
Does your religion conflict with your pursuit of gender equality?
According to some misinterpretations, yes. But for true Islam, men and women are equal. Enhancing the role of women is a good thing. This is part of our faith. So my parents didn’t care much about arguing about women who shouldn’t be allowed to exercise or anything else. What my brothers were allowed to do, I and my sisters were also allowed to do. vice versa. My older sister and older brother started playing football. Then came I, the third in the family of seven, and my younger brother. The rest follows. The two Sheikhs combined football with university studies. They were role models for us.
Thanks to this simultaneous approach, I now have two bachelor’s degrees: in health sciences, exercise and education. Then I was at a crossroads: What am I really going to do? I had the opportunity to become a professional football player.”
In the meantime, I already played semi-professional and dreamed of a place in the Canadian team.
“Playing for Canada would be a thank you. Thank you for giving us the opportunity for new beginnings. Making money through football.”
But you were called up for the Afghan national team in 2016.
“Yeah. I also considered playing for that a beautiful gesture. I may not have been born and raised there, and have never visited before, but I also feel Afghan. I wanted to do it for my war-torn country and for all the girls and women who couldn’t And they didn’t have what I could and what I had.”
With this choice, the possibility of playing for Canada disappeared from view.
It was a dilemma. It just kept in my head: Is this smart? Will I enjoy it? Can I play at the level I am used to? “
Doubts have remained for a long time. Half of the team was made up of women from Afghanistan and half from other places. So the difference in level of football was huge. Makes sense, because kicking a ball in Afghanistan as a woman is heroic. No one will support you in that. While refugee women elsewhere in the world have been able to train in good conditions, they can compete with others in good football clubs. So we played a guiding role and tried to narrow that gap as much as possible. Some players are not even supported by their families. They literally sneak through windows and backyards to go to exercise. Then they tell their parents that they went to school while they were in the field. Elsewhere in the world, we as refugees have had every opportunity to exercise, grow and measure ourselves. By taking on the role of mentor and working closely with each other during the training camps, we tried to narrow the gap.”
Did that work?
“Sometimes. Nothing is easy. Even making a plan is difficult, because reality is always changing. But no matter how many doors are closed for us, we keep pushing to open them.”
Then all of a sudden I got a call in the summer of 2021.
“Yes, everyone watched what was happening in Afghanistan. Then all of a sudden the FA hung up if I could help evacuate the players. At first I randomly called my parents for advice, human rights lawyers, refugee organizations and other NGOs. In the beginning also For the women’s national team. Later someone else started working on it. After that I worked hard to get the girls out of the Afghan U23 team.”
Were you successful?
“I got sympathetic reactions in Canada, but no one can do anything. I only really advanced through a friend of mine and my mentor, Kat Khosroyar, who was the coach of the Iran women’s national team. She helped me establish contacts at the highest political level in the United States. They saw the urgency there. And thus what came to be called Operation Soccer Balls was born. I had been working on it full time for weeks. It was a crash course in crisis management. I was in constant contact with diplomats and intelligence officers. It was about escape routes, safe homesValid documents, aircraft and courage. Every failed attempt made me more determined. The girls and their families had a hard time, of course. The deadline to get them out of the country passed on August 31. They only got away with eighty people in the second half of September.”
Then I met the girls in Portugal, where they could go.
“I’ve never seen anyone from the youth team before. In Portugal, I spent some time trying to arrange things like housing and other things that are important for their future. I am now kind of a remote coach. I send them fitness training plans, among other things.”
Is there any hope for the players in Portugal and your women’s team to one day play for Afghanistan again?
“I have a lot of contacts with FIFA and other organizations about this. Money and a plan are needed to start everything over again. We are now busy putting together a good proposal.”
Is it possible to imagine such a national team in exile? Does FIFA interfere a lot in political affairs?
“Given all that has happened in Afghanistan, it should be possible. By this time next year, I hope we will be there.”
Can you do something off the field at Sittard in addition to all that international work?
“Sithard and her surroundings have never known professional women’s football before. So the young girls have grown up here without role models in the field. I also want here to contribute to change by focusing on refugees and other newcomers in the Netherlands.”