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Afghan women footballers risk death threats, disapproval

By Nick Paton Walsh, CNN
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Afghan women on the pitch and loving it
  • The Afghan women's football team frequently faces ostracism and death threats
  • Local officials say they are no longer allowed to use the main stadium in Kabul
  • The national team is the only women's soccer team in Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- It is rare that you see a football match interrupted by a military helicopter landing. But that is what the Afghan women's football team, a group of remarkably hardened and brave soccer enthusiasts, regularly face.

That's after the death threats, and parental disapproval and the ostracizing. You see to many Afghans, in this conservative society, women just aren't meant to play sports at all.

Khalida Popal, their captain, has received threatening text messages from those who say she must stop shaming her society. She's even persevered in the face of her family telling her to stop playing for her own safety.

"I love football and football is everything for me and when I come and feel the football I forget everything and I become very happy when I see my team", she said.

Now her team has a real problem on their hands: They have nowhere to practice.

For the past few months, they were allowed into the main stadium in Kabul. It's where the Taliban used to publicly execute people - but now it's covered in real grass.

Not that the girls got used to it: They were relegated to a patch of concrete down at one end.

But even that's now out of bounds - local officials telling them they can't use the space any more.

So we join them in a strange new world. NATO has taken pity on them and loaned them a small patch of grass just inside the outer walls of its main headquarters in Kabul.

When my family said 'no, just stop playing football' I tried to suicide.
--Khalida Popal
  • Kabul
  • Afghanistan
  • NATO
  • The Taliban

It's grass. And there are goalposts. Yet one small problem remains. The grass is not just meant for football. It's also a helipad -- an active one.

The girls are about 10 minutes into their practice when the sound of the Black Hawks begins.

Two US soldiers calmly walk onto the pitch and wave them off, securing the landing zone.

The girls sit calmly by the side of the pitch, as the three-star general lands. And then, before the helicopter wheels have even left the ground, they're dribbling the ball back onto the pitch.

This fight - to play the game she loves - has been incredibly tough for Khalida. When her parents told her to stop, she could no longer see the point of living.

"When my family stopped me to play football, when they said, 'No, just stop playing football,' I tried suicide." But she survived.

Some of the disapproval against the women stems from how nearly all of their few international matches took place abroad, conservative Afghans particularly outraged by women traveling unaccompanied overseas.

There are no other Afghan female teams for them to play against at home, so the only other team they can face off against is NATO's women. The matches are sometimes full contact. Tackles abound, but so does some real joy from the Afghans at the chance to really play -- a privilege the NATO team has long taken for granted.

One NATO female player said: "It wasn't until the last week when I met the coach that I realized that I've taken a lot for granted. Just being able to play any sport and have the freedoms that I have. It did not dawn on me until last week and when we had the chance to talk to each other that this is new for them."

For some of the girls, the constant beat of threats and jibes can take its toll. "I might get more threats, so I'm thinking about quitting," said Khattol Khan, another player. "Two other girls did and fled the country. My family wants me to and doesn't even know I'm here today."

We caught up with her father, who didn't know she was still playing. He expressed his genuine fears for her safety, but also his enduring pride at her spirit.

"Yes, my daughter is studying in at the technical institute, and I have got someone who looks after her," he said. "I give her a lift every morning to school, and in the afternoon her brother brings her back home. I am worried, but I am also proud."

Football is a source of quotidian joy around the world. But here, in a society wracked by religious fervor and habitual violence, it's at times at matter of life and death.