Khalida Popal, the former captain of the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team, woke up on the floor of her apartment near Copenhagen, drenched in sweat and shaking.
She had collapsed and couldn’t speak. An ambulance rushed to her.
It was two years ago last month, and the Taliban were taking control of Afghanistan. Female soccer players on the national team Popal helped create in 2007 were desperate to leave the country, fearing that the Taliban would kill them for playing the sport.
Players were deluging Popal with requests for help, and she felt smothered by guilt. For more than 15 years, much of that period spent in exile, she had encouraged Afghan girls to participate in all areas of society, including sports, jobs and education.
The message was everything the Taliban despised.
“I feel responsible for these girls,” Popal said later. “I’d rather die than turn my back on them.”
So on that blue-sky summer afternoon in 2021, Popal had a panic attack and thought she might be dying. But in a show of her resilience in a life marked by trauma, she waved away the medical workers and returned to her desk to continue coordinating an evacuation of players and their families from Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Relying on a network she built through her activism, she helped rescue 87 people, including the senior national team. Months later, another 130.
Now Popal is on another mission, one that reached its height at this summer’s Women’s World Cup. She is trying to convince FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, to let players on the Afghan women’s national team represent their country again after the Taliban barred girls and women from playing sports.
The players, after escaping Afghanistan with Popal’s help, are living in Australia, which hosted this year’s World Cup with New Zealand. Though the team is competing for the Melbourne Victory soccer club, FIFA refuses to recognize it as a national team because the Afghanistan Football Federation claims it does not exist. Under the Taliban, no women’s team does.
“These players dreamed of playing football for Afghanistan and men just came and took that dream from them,” Popal said. “FIFA is saying, ‘We are sorry that you’ve lost your right to play football, girls, when you have done nothing to deserve it.’ It’s disgusting.”
In an emailed statement, FIFA said it cannot recognize a national team unless it is first acknowledged by its national federation. FIFA has declared it a priority to ensure equal access to soccer without discrimination. But in Afghanistan’s case, it is just “monitoring the situation very closely,” according to its statement.
A spokesman for the Afghanistan Football Federation said the organization could do nothing to help because the women’s national team dissolved when the players fled the country — an assertion the players reject.
With coffee in hand and the energy of someone who has consumed far too much of it, Popal, 36, has been sharing the Afghan team’s story with everyone she can, in every way she can. While working for Right to Dream, a soccer nonprofit, and Girl Power, her own nonprofit, she organized a petition, which has been signed by more than 175,000 people since publishing online in late July. More than 100 politicians, across four countries, endorsed a letter she wrote to FIFA with the British parliamentarian Julie Elliott and Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was shot in the head by the Taliban when she was 15.
Also, days before the World Cup began, Popal flew to Melbourne for a match that Melbourne Victory arranged, at her suggestion, between the exiled Afghan team and a team that represented the area’s migrants and refugees. They called the event the Hope Cup.
About 50 fans watched the Afghan players wave their nation’s flag and sing about their country. One Afghan wore a T-shirt that said, “Save our families,” because many players’ relatives were still hoping to receive humanitarian visas to live in Australia.
Like a Hollywood publicist, Popal played cheerful yet determined host, rooting for the players, taking photos and speaking to reporters.
“Khalida is reminding the world that we are still here, don’t forget us,” said Fati Yousufi, the Afghan team’s captain and goalkeeper. “I know a lot of us have said, ‘I want to be like Khalida one day, a strong and powerful woman.’”
Anyone who wants to be like Popal should understand that her advocacy for the Afghan team has come with serious sacrifices.
“It has taken a huge toll on her,” said Kelly Lindsey, an American whom Popal recruited to coach the Afghan national team in 2016. “But she won’t stop for a moment to take care of herself. Because if she did that, there would be no time for her to take care of others.”
Creating the National Team
Even before the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, men would throw rocks at Popal when she played soccer in the street, claiming it was immoral for girls to play sports. Yet she always believed women could earn respect through soccer because it was a language men understood.
During the Taliban’s first reign, from when Popal was age 9 to 14, she was stuck in a Pakistani refugee tent city, with soccer as her only outlet. When her family returned to Kabul in 2002 after a U.S.-led coalition drove out the Taliban, she was eager to grow the sport.
Her mother, Shokria Popal, a physical education teacher, helped recruit players, often contending with parents who called her a prostitute trying to destroy the culture. Teachers slapped Khalida in the face and tried to expel her for her work. But from the Popals’ efforts, high school teams were born. Five years later, the Afghanistan Football Federation accepted Khalida’s team as the women’s national team.
It was too dangerous for the team to play in public because religious conservatives said the sportswear showed the shapes of women’s bodies, defying Islam. So the team practiced inside a NATO base, using hand-me-down equipment from the federation’s men’s teams and practicing on an active helipad. Helicopters kicked up dust that caked the players’ faces and coated their throats.
The squad once lost an international match by 17-0. But to Popal, winning was not as important as the message.
The team, which played its official matches outside the country, first made national news in 2010 when it played NATO soldiers in Kabul. Speaking to journalists, Popal denounced the Taliban. There was an immediate cost.
Some of her teammates were forced to quit because their families hadn’t known that they were playing. Popal recalled receiving death threats, including from one caller who said he would cut her to pieces.
Her father and one of her four brothers were slashed with knives and beaten with guns because, as the assailants said to them, they “were not real men for letting their daughter and sister play football,” her father, Timor Shah Popal, recalled.
In 2011, Popal was working as the head of finance and women’s soccer at the otherwise all-male federation, trying to blend in with her colleagues by wearing baggy clothes and speaking in rough slang, when she complained on national television that the women’s team wasn’t getting enough support. She blamed corrupt sports officials for it.
Days later, she said, a truck rammed into the car she was riding in. Uniformed men fired shots through the windows, but she was not physically harmed. Then, when the Afghanistan Olympic committee’s headquarters were vandalized, Popal was among those blamed.
Though she denied involvement, the police issued a warrant for her arrest. Hours before the government barred her from traveling, she boarded a plane to India.
The Death of a Brother
Popal was on the run. Multiple times, she changed her phone number and her hotel, but threats found their way to her. One text message said, “We will not let your parents live. Come back for payback.”
The next summer, she learned that her brother Idris had been shot and killed on the way to a university math class in Kabul, and was sure that the death was connected to her activism.
She made her way to Denmark after the sportswear company Hummel, the Afghan team’s sponsor, helped her apply for asylum there. For a year, she lived in a refugee center surrounded by barbed wire fences. Gunfire from the adjacent military shooting range provided an unnerving soundtrack.
Every day, she woke up with her eyes swollen from crying. At night, she kept the lights on in her barracks because of a recurring dream that a man was at the foot of her bed, trying to kill her. She considered suicide.
“I spent a lot of time looking at the birds and feeling jealous because they have wings to fly and I was just a useless body with no identity,” she recalled.
With the help of a therapist and medication, her depression lifted. In exile, Popal eventually volunteered as the Afghan national team’s program director, organizing tournament appearances and hiring coaches. She also coordinated surreptitious exits to safe countries for gay players who feared persecution and forced marriages.
But even women who remained with the team were not safe. In 2018, Popal saw federation officials sexually harassing players at a training camp in Jordan. Players told her that they had been sexually abused by those and other officials, including Keramuddin Keram, who was the federation’s president and a powerful politician. Popal reported what she had heard, but for eight months FIFA officials did nothing, according to Popal and Lindsey, the coach.
Popal persuaded 10 players to come forward and obtained blueprints of the federation’s headquarters. That paperwork showed Keram had a secret bedroom attached to his office where, players told her, he beat and raped them.
FIFA eventually barred Keram from the sport for life and the Afghan courts punished him and four others. The case was the first of its kind in the country, said Fawzia Amini, who was a senior judge on Afghanistan’s supreme court before fleeing Kabul in 2021.
“Khalida is my hero,” Amini said when she and Popal were in Washington last year to accept the Lantos Human Rights Prize. Amini had been the judge assigned to the soccer federation’s sexual abuse cases.
“Because of her, girls know how to go to the courts to fight for their rights,” she said of Popal.
News of the case reached other national team players, including those in Haiti, Argentina, Canada and Venezuela. They felt emboldened to speak up about sexual abuse committed by men in their sport, said Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, the general secretary of FIFPro, the union for professional soccer players that helped Popal with the abuse case.
“Khalida started a big wave,” he said. “She’s changing the world.”
She is also trying to protect others from what she endured.
When she was a teenager, Popal said, she woke up after a routine surgery to find her limbs tied to the bed. A doctor was on top of her, fondling her.
He stopped, she said, only when she vomited.
“I want to be there for the girls,” she said, “because no one was there for me.”
When Kabul fell two years ago, Popal worried about those girls. While faced with terrifying flashbacks from her own experiences fleeing the Taliban, she felt a duty to the generations of girls she had urged to test society’s limits.
“Save me, sister,” the player Nilab Mohammadi begged her one night in a video call while holding a gun. “The minute the Taliban knocks on my door, I will shoot myself in the head.”
Popal soothed her, promising help. She rushed to social media and television to warn players to erase evidence that they had played soccer. Burn your jerseys, she said. Delete your social media accounts.
Hands trembling and heart racing, she called her wide network. A team of lawyers, politicians and human rights advocates joined her to evacuate the players. Some of those players were forced to leave family members behind, and Popal empathized. When she left Afghanistan, she never again saw her grandfather, whom she called the love of her life. He had told her she could become an independent woman and make a difference in the world instead of marrying at 13 or 14 and relying on a husband.
Eventually, Popal helped more than 200 players and their family members make it safely out of Afghanistan, where girls and women have since lost the freedom to work, attend school and even to go outside without a man.
“People fail to acknowledge what a strategically brilliant mind she is,” Lindsey said. “Without her, none of this happens.”
‘Like a Mother Fighting for Her Kids’
Popal’s work continues. On any given day, she may be on a train to Berlin or a long-haul flight to Australia, off to accept awards or speak at conferences or meet with refugees. She often wears dresses or skirts, with her long, wavy black hair flowing over her shoulders, to make up for the years she had to dress like a man.
After one trip in the fall of 2021, Popal and her boyfriend, Russell Pakzad, visited her parents, who had received asylum in Denmark in 2016. The smell of lamb simmering on the stovetop wafted through the apartment as Khalida gave her mother, Shokria, the latest honor she had won, the FIFPro Hero Award.
With a bittersweet smile, Shokria leafed through a pile of Khalida’s accomplishments: a magazine article from Afghanistan, with a portrait of Khalida clutching a trophy; a photo of Khalida and the national team in Pakistan. Her only daughter always gave her trouble, she said, starting when Khalida was a schoolgirl who refused to keep her opinions to herself.
“I just think you are so brave and fearless,” she told Khalida. “I don’t know where it comes from.”
The next day, Khalida Popal’s phone had 252 unread messages, many from players on Afghanistan’s developmental team. Popal helped evacuate those players from Kabul by choreographing a journey to Pakistan that included the girls huddling inside an abandoned house while Taliban fighters roamed outside.
Popal had relied on a connection at the Pakistan Football Federation to help the team cross the border and into a government-sponsored hotel. But now the Pakistani government wanted the players to move along.
Popal sought help from Rabbi Moshe Margaretten of the Tzedek Association, a Brooklyn-based social justice group she worked with during the initial evacuation of players. “She really inspired me because she was like a mother fighting for her kids,” he said.
Popal was on a train to Brussels from Paris when the rabbi got back to her.
“Kim Kardashian paid for the girls’ flight!” Popal said, laughing loudly enough to startle other passengers.
The players flew to London, and then settled in Doncaster, about 50 miles east of Manchester. It’s just one place Popal routinely visits newly transplanted Afghans.
Though the players’ hotel was not open to the public, Popal strolled by the security guards in the summer of 2022 as if she were in charge. She had work to do: link the players to local soccer teams, set up job training and ensure that they had mental health services — the same help she had given the national team in Australia. That weekend, she took the players to the beach and to the European women’s soccer championship, pulling several coffee-fueled all-nighters to fit it in. No one gave her that kind of attention, she said, when she was a refugee.
Narges Mayeli, one of the players, said Popal provided hope.
“I have nothing in my life right now,” Mayeli said. “But the only thing that I know is that if I put Khalida as my role model, I’m going to be successful someday.”
The Women’s World Cup was ending in a day and Popal was eking out all the publicity she could get for the Afghan team before the world stopped watching.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist, helped with that.
Malala had flown to Melbourne from Sydney, where she and her husband, Asser Malik, had attended a World Cup game. After reading in The New York Times about Fati Yousufi and the Afghan team, she wanted to meet the players and help Popal in her efforts.
On a tiny indoor field, with about a dozen television cameras present, Popal listened as Malala and Yousufi, the team captain, gave speeches. She took deep breaths and stared at the ground to fight back tears.
Malala, who wore the Afghan team’s jersey to the World Cup final the next day, said FIFA needed to change its regulations to let the team compete because playing a sport is a basic human right.
“It is time for people to decide that they are not standing on the Taliban’s side,” she said.
Yousufi was next. Since her story became public, she had been featured at human rights and women’s rights conferences, and last May gave the commencement speech for Chapman University’s law school near Anaheim, Calif. (Yousufi once did not use her surname publicly, but does so now that her family has safely left Afghanistan.)
“We are asking them to open the door, open the door for our team, open the door for Afghanistan women,” Yousufi said, referring to FIFA, as Popal and Malala nodded. “We don’t want to lose this opportunity.”
Popal never thought she would work alongside someone with Malala’s stature, or that players, like Yousufi, would become forceful leaders worldwide.
“It’s so lonely and tiring to do this on your own, which was what I did for a long time, but now I see that the new generation gets it,” she said, choking up. “It’s not all on my shoulders anymore.”
Safiullah Padshah contributed reporting from Kabul.
Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.