Female footballers who fled Afghanistan in 2021 criticise BBC’s ‘false footballers’ article
Female football players who fled Afghanistan after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021 are criticising a recent BBC article which has labelled some of those evacuated as “false footballers”.
The investigation by BBC Newsnight said some of the descriptions of UK visa applicants as national players or members of a regional team “appear to be false”. The report said there is resentment among “genuine players” now living under Taliban rule.
The Guardian spoke with four players from Herat who said they were upset by the BBC online article they say puts them at greater risk, and fear for families who remain in Afghanistan.
Other players who were evacuated in 2021 took aim at the BBC story on Twitter on Friday for questioning their integrity, naming individuals without their consent, and leaving players worried for their safety amid increasing anti-migrant protests. After the Guardian approached the BBC, several of the players’ names were removed.
In August 2021, the Afghan national women’s team was evacuated from Kabul to Australia, while the youth football team was granted asylum in Portugal. Months later, 130 female footballers and their families from the youth development team fled for Pakistan on temporary visas before securing a safe place in the UK.
Khalida Popal, the former captain of the national women’s football team who helped evacuate players, said she was very upset and worried by the BBC article which labelled 13 evacuees as “false footballers”.
“The reason I am worried is for both women in Afghanistan but also women outside Afghanistan,” said Popal. “The way it says the ‘real players’ [were] left, they are still in Afghanistan, it is actually trying to push the Taliban to look [for] them, which we have been trying to protect them for many years.”
Popal, who fled Afghanistan in 2011, was approached by distressed teammates and players on social media after the fall of Kabul. To assist the players, she asked for their photographs and player identification cards. The first team that came forward was the Herat team said Popal, followed by players from other provinces which made up the group of players travelling from Pakistan.
The captain of the Herat Youth Team, Sabriah Nawrozi, was interviewed by the BBC and also said she was upset by the article.
“I want the BBC to show the true interview,” said Nawrozi. Upon arriving in England, she split the group into two teams, team A and B, who trained separately due to their different ability levels, not “because one team couldn’t play football” as the BBC article said, she said
“Whoever came forward we supported. It’s not that I have intentionally chosen and picked people, that wasn’t the case,” said Popal. “We have tried our best since the fall of Kabul. As individuals [we] came together with the little power that we had to use our network to save as many women as possible when the government failed the women of Afghanistan.”
When the team first arrived in the UK, anti-refugee protesters assembled outside the hotel, recalled Popal. Two brothers of the players were physically attacked, and a father was beaten. Now, she said the players no longer feel safe. “Articles like this put them in more danger,” she said.
Najma Arefi, 19, is afraid the hotel incident will repeat itself. While she was lucky, she said, to flee with her family, she thinks of her teammates who are nervous for their families in Afghanistan. “This type of article makes things difficult for every single of us and our families as well,” she said.
Arefi grew up playing football in Herat from the age of 13. When the Taliban took over, she was one of the many players able to evacuate with the help of Popal.
“We feel so sorry for ourselves, for the other girls that are still in Afghanistan, we had a lot of footballers in different clubs,” said Arefi. “We want the BBC to apologise and take down their article.”
It’s not the first time the team has had their identities questioned, recalls 20-year-old Narges Mayeli. Months after arriving in England, police visited their hotel requesting evidence and proof to show they are genuine footballers after a Daily Mail article she said.
“They proved it, everyone,” said Mayeli. “This is the second time that the media has attacked our team like this and this is really, really really, disappointing.” She said their escape was dangerous, with the threat of armed attacks and explosions. “We are only some teenage girls, we had lots of trauma, and it was really difficult for us,” said Mayeli tearfully. “We are trying to forget those days.”
The BBC article refers to a list of evacuees submitted to the British authorities to gain entry to the UK. Popal said she has never been in contact with any government.
Mozhdah Howaida, 21, was contacted by the BBC for the article but saw the message late, she said. Having had to leave her family behind in Afghanistan to escape with her life, she said she now worries for them, fearing the article could lead to them being punished by the Taliban.
“I’m so upset that my team is attacked like this. The article says that our lives are not worth being saved,” said Howaida. “Since this article [was] published, I feel like I lost my family, and I lost my country again.”
Popal, remains proud that she didn’t turn her back on the woman of her country, she said. “I am happy as an individual, with the little power that I had, to save as many lives as possible regardless of their titles and levels of football.”
In response to questions from the Guardian, a BBC spokesperson said they have taken care not to identify anyone who has not previously been identified as a “genuine footballer” in other media. They said the investigation came after Newsnight was contacted by former female footballers still in Afghanistan.
The spokesperson said: “We have considered the concerns of people mentioned in the story and removed them, even if their names are still used in other media, such as the Guardian.”