Khalida Popal: Afghanistan’s ‘happiest ever footballers’ – FWA

Image copyright AFP Image caption The former midfielder scored 53 goals in 108 games for the national team

Khalida Popal played 17 of her 78 caps for Afghanistan during the 1993-1996 era when the West were gripped by the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the Taliban’s 1992 seizure of Afghanistan.

Now 54, she took the Football Association of Afghanistan (FAA) to the Court of Arbitration for Sport for its failure to pay her due wages.

After the Taliban’s fall, Popal became the first non-Taliban member to be allowed back into the team. In 2007, she was elected the first woman president of the FA.

She spoke to BBC World Service’s Dakshina Chapitka about her own wartime experiences and how Afghanistan’s sporting heroes are changed by life under the Taliban, now firmly in power.

Khalida Popal is the first Afghan woman to be elected as president of the Football Association of Afghanistan (FAA)

Who was Khalida Popal and how did you become a footballer?

As a young girl, I dreamed of one day playing for Afghanistan’s national team and defending my homeland. The FA is my first national achievement.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Khalida played all three outfield positions in Afghanistan’s team

How did you get a foot in the door?

I am grateful to my father, who played football. He bought me my first football back in 1979, when I was six years old. I was obsessed with this game since then.

I attended several training sessions with different trainers. At the age of 16, I quit school and started playing for the Afghan National League.

I performed so well, as a result of my constant training and progress in my game, that the Afghan FA called me up for a number of official training courses.

I was called up to the Afghan national team on 25 May 1994, when I was 19. I played in the first 15-16 matches that season, but was expelled in August, after meeting a man who did not have a permit to play football.

I was heartbroken when I heard this because I had made great sacrifices during my journey for the national team and had also won several players’ Player of the Year awards for my club.

Also, I was captain of my state in parliament. This was the most difficult moment of my life, when I was not only kicked out of football, but from my country as well.

What happened when you discovered that the FA had failed to pay you your salary?

As a result of my strike, there were many other grievances in the Afghan FA. Some players were waiting for salaries for months.

Players wanted my contract released, but the FA refused. Therefore, I took the issue to the court of arbitration for sport.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Fawsati lifted the veil of the media in a recent TV documentary

Did you ever think you would be elected the first woman to lead the FA?

When I was elected president, I didn’t expect I would be accepted so easily. If a woman was elected president, then, the rest is history.

It was a difficult and dangerous time for the women in my country during the Taliban regime, but it also gave me a chance to highlight my achievements as a woman, a national coach and a football legend.

The Taliban implemented a ban on women playing football. But women never stopped being good athletes. I was able to integrate women into my country’s football squad, so that they could achieve their goals as athletes.

What does the future hold for Afghanistan’s women in sports?

It’s a big challenge for the Afghan women today, because they are not playing football. But it’s not only football – we need to be involved in other sports as well. It’s not just about participating in football.

Although the Taliban government once suspended Afghanistan’s national league, we have kept active. We are celebrating 25 years of independence in this country and we want to commemorate that too.

Have you ever seen a female team compete at a high level in Afghanistan?

I am glad to see that our national team is now affiliated to the Asian Football Confederation. But I believe that there is no difference between Afghanistan and other countries. We need to be recognised and play in international competitions.

Can you tell us about your favourite memory in football?

Yes, I remember the moment when Afghanistan defeated Iraq 3-0 in 1982. At the time, it was only a friendly and no game was discussed.

The Afghan team played the match under Islamic rules, yet still the match was a great success for us.

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