Where in the World is WoSo: Afghanistan

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This is the first in an occasional series focusing on some of the lower-profile or lesser-known Women’s National Teams around the globe. Teams we feel deserve a shout-out for their efforts both on and off the pitch to build a love of soccer in their communities and nations.
 

The first team Backline Soccer will be featuring is the Afghanistan Women’s National Team. Formed in 2007, the team’s first exhibition match was against the women’s team from the International Security Assistance Force, where Afghanistan notched their first-ever win in a 5-0 game. They then traveled to Pakistan to play against teams from the Pakistani national women’s soccer league, where they advanced to the final round, losing to a team from Karachi with a score of 1-0, and then played several matches against the Pakistan Women’s National Team before FIFA officials in order to qualify for ranking.
 
In the years since their inaugural match, the WNT has slowly gained experience both in international training camps–both soccer federations in both Germany and the Netherlands have provided support to the team–and international play. In 2010, the team appeared in its first major international tournament, the South Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship, where they were eliminated early on in the group stage.
 
But if this team has a defining characteristic, it’s that it does not give up. With a roster full of women who have faced much adversity, women who have persisted and overcome obstacles of the kind that are inconceivable for most individuals, and have honestly risked their lives to play this sport, the WNT came back in 2012 and fought their way to the semi-finals before being knocked out by India.
 
In the years since, the team has had its highs and lows–a terrible showing in the 2014 SAFF Women’s Championship, a brand new coaching staff, roster changes, international sponsorship, etc–but the women on the field continue to fight for success, for the chance to show the world that they have earned a place on the international soccer stage. More, that they–Afghani women from all over the world–are far more than the images the West has of them.
 
Because, from its inception, the narrative surrounding the WNT has involved so much more than simply results on the field. Much of the global attention to the team has focused on the intersection between several complicated issues that a developing team faces in a country after decades of conflict. Issues of gender, of resources, infrastructure, and accessibility abound in ways that are difficult for outsiders looking in to understand. Additionally, the members of the team face scrutiny from a culture still strongly influenced by the conservative Taliban rule that was overthrown in 2001. Cultural expectations of feminine modesty and the role of women in Afghan society play a large role wherever pockets of resistance or obstacles to the progress of the team and players are uncovered.
 
The team, it is clear, recognizes the position they are in–not only the difficulties that they have faced and continue to face–but also the opportunities. Both as soccer players and as advocates for their gender and their nation on the international stage. As Khalida Popal, former defender and current director of the WNT for Afghanistan, said in 2010: “This is how I fight. We want to send a message over the world to show that women can play football, and study, and work.
 
The team has inspired a resurging sense of national pride, both from those who remain in the country as well as those who have emigrated elsewhere. During their first matches in Pakistan, the players, many of whom are refugees themselves, it’s reported that they were cheered on by “hundreds” of their fellow Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. “Long live Agfhanistan,” cheered the spectators who watched as the WNT scored a goal.  “I have come to [the] realization that I have the power to change how people look at Afghanistan,” Hajar Abulfazil told Bustle earlier this year, speaking of her experience on the team and how it helped to foster a renewed sense of national belonging for her, after growing up under the Taliban and then during the ensuing conflict when the United States sent troops in after 9/11.
 
The growth of women’s soccer in Afghanistan in the wake of the WNT has been steady. As of 2015, there were over a thousand registered soccer players in the country, many participating in the growing network of domestic club-level opportunities for women to play. Partnerships with groups like Hummel International has not only helped to fund the team, but also to forge new directions for women in soccer, as with the creation of a soccer kit with an optional integrated hijab and base layer for those players who choose to wear them. And word about the team is spreading, often through the tireless efforts of its leaders, in particular, program director Khalida Popal, who shares her experiences of playing soccer in Afghanistan all over the world.
 
Now, in 2016, with a new coaching staff headed by coach Kelly Lindsey (former defender for the WUSA San Jose CyberRays and the USWNT) and assistant coach Haley Carter (former reserve goalkeeper for the Houston Dash), as well as a fitness coach and physical therapist, the Afghanistan WNT is preparing for the 2016 SAFF Women’s Championship in India and the 2017 Istria Cup in Croatia. With help from Soccer Without Borders, the team held a camp in California earlier this year, playing a local Palo Alto team and building team cohesion, as its players are spread from Afghanistan to Europe to the United States. And the team is ready for the challenges that await it.
 
“We are optimistic about our future, and believe in our strengths and power as women, we will change the situation, which is right now for women in our country,” team member Medina Azizi writes, and though they have a long road ahead of them, she believes that one day the world will see the Afghanistan Women’s National Team at the Women’s World Cup:
 
 
One day we will play in women’s world cup, and I am sure there will be many people men and women will cheer for us, and there will be many people who will carry Afghan flag and wave for us.
And you know what?
 
I believe her.
 

 
Afghanistan Women’s National Team Information:
 
Association: Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF)
Confederation: Asian Football Confederation (AFC)
Sub-Confederation: Central Asian Football Federation (CAFF)
Current FIFA Ranking: Currently not rated (High: 108, 12/2013; Low: 138, 09/2015)
 
Upcoming Fixtures:
 
  • SAFF 2016 Women’s Championship in Siliguri, India (25 December – 3 January)
  • 2017 Istria Cup in Istria, Croatia (28 February – 9 March)

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