"Football is like food": Afghan footballers find a home in Italy

AVEZZANO, Italy – Two days after Taliban fighters seized Herat , the third largest city in Afghanistan, Italian journalist Stefano Liber...

AVEZZANO, Italy – Two days after Taliban fighters seized Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan, Italian journalist Stefano Liberti received a message via Facebook: “Hello sir, we are in trouble. Can you help us?”

Last month’s message came from 21-year-old Susan, the former captain of Bastan, a women’s football team that was once the subject of a documentary by Mr Liberti and his colleague Mario Poeta.

“Football is like food to me,” Susan would later say, and the fear of never playing under the Taliban again, “made me feel like I was dead. Like others interviewed in this article, only his first name is used to protect his identity.

Thirteen days after contacting Mr. Liberti, Susan arrived in Italy with two of her teammates, their coach and several family members. They landed at Rome’s main airport after a flight made possible by the two journalists, a NGO based in Florence, several Italian legislators and officials from the Italian Defense and Foreign Affairs ministries.

The Herat group, 16 people in total, transited through a tent camp run by the Italian Red Cross in Avezzano, in the Apennines, where more than 1,400 Afghans evacuated to Italy have been quarantined in recent weeks.

Like so many Afghans, the players left behind the lives they had built for the journey. Susan interrupted her university studies in English literature to leave the country with her parents, two sisters and a brother.

Women were banned from sports during the first era of the Taliban. Even after the group’s ouster from power in 2001, the practice of sport continued to be a challenge for Afghan women and for the men who have helped them.

In “Herat Football ClubThe 2017 documentary by reporters on the team, Najibullah, the coach, said he had been repeatedly threatened by the Taliban for training young women.

The Taliban’s return to power has raised fears not only that restrictions on sports will be reimposed, but also that female athletes who have emerged in the past 20 years will face retaliation.

Khalida Popal, the former captain of the women’s national team who left Afghanistan in 2011 and now lives in Copenhagen, used social and traditional media last month to advise women who had played sports in Afghanistan to shut down their social media accounts, remove all online presence and even burn their uniforms.

“They have no one to turn to, to seek protection, to ask for help if they are in danger,” she said in an interview with Reuters.

Another Herat player, Fatema, 19, has also left her university studies, administration and public policy behind. She arrived in Italy with a brother, but her father fell ill as they tried to pass through the crowds at Kabul airport, so he and his mother stayed behind.

“They said to me: ‘Go ahead, go for your future, for football, for your education,'” said Fatema.

“Playing soccer makes me feel powerful and an example for other girls, to show that you can do whatever you want,” Fatema said. She expressed the hope that this would also be the case in Italy. “I want to make it my country now,” she said.

The eldest of the three players, Maryam, 23, already had a management diploma and had worked as a driving school instructor in Herat. She saw herself as a role model, inspiring young women by example “because of football, because of driving”.

“I was an active member of society,” said Maryam, a role she was sure she couldn’t have under the Taliban.

Maryam was the only member of the team to arrive in Italy alone, although she said she hoped her family would join her. “It’s hard for me to smile,” she said. “But I hope my future will be good, certainly better than under the Taliban.”

Players say many of their Herat teammates are still in Kabul, hoping to find transit to Australia, where some players from the Afghanistan Women’s National Team were evacuated.

Last Friday, the three women and their families were relocated to the Italian city of Florence. In Italy, the national football federation, some football clubs and the captain of the national team, Sara Gama, have offered their support to young Afghan players.

“There was a lot of solidarity,” said Mr. Liberti, the documentary filmmaker.

And on a hot afternoon last week, Fatema and Maryam did something they had never done before: They kicked a ball with a few boys.

When asked what it was like, Maryam smiled widely and gave a thumbs up.

“It felt good,” Fatema added. “People weren’t looking at us like we had done something wrong. “

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Newsrust - US Top News: "Football is like food": Afghan footballers find a home in Italy
"Football is like food": Afghan footballers find a home in Italy
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