The female footballers who fled Afghanistan after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021 are criticizing a recent BBC article calling some of the evacuees “fake footballers”.
The investigation by BBC Newsnight said that some of the descriptions of UK visa applicants as national players or members of a regional team “appear to be untrue”. The report says there is resentment among “genuine players” now living under Taliban rule.
The Guardian spoke to four Herat players who said they were upset by the BBC’s online article which they say puts them at greater risk and fear for families remaining in Afghanistan.
Other players who were evacuated in 2021 criticized the BBC story on Twitter on Friday for questioning their integrity, naming people without their consent and leaving players concerned for their safety amid growing anti-migrant protests. After the Guardian approached the BBC, several of the players’ names were removed.
In August 2021, the Afghan women’s national team was evacuated from Kabul to Australia, while the youth soccer team was granted asylum in Portugal. Months later, 130 footballers and their families from the youth development team fled to Pakistan on temporary visas before securing a place of safety in the UK.
Khalida Popal, the former captain of the women’s national soccer team who helped evacuate the players, said she was very upset and concerned by the BBC article calling 13 evacuees “fake footballers.”
“The reason I am concerned is both for women in Afghanistan and for women outside of Afghanistan,” Popal said. “The way it says ‘real players’ [were] left, they’re still in Afghanistan, he’s actually trying to put pressure on the Taliban to look for [for] them, which we have been trying to protect for many years.”
Popal, who fled Afghanistan in 2011, was accosted by distraught teammates and players on social media after Kabul fell. To help the players, he asked for their photos and player ID cards. The first team to go ahead was the team from Herat, Popal said, followed by players from other provinces who made up the group of players traveling from Pakistan.
Herat youth team captain Sabriah Nawrozi was interviewed by the BBC and also said she was upset by the article.
“I want the BBC to show the real interview,” Nawrozi said. Arriving in England, he divided the group into two teams, Team A and Team B, who trained separately due to their different skill levels, not “because one team couldn’t play football” as the BBC article put it. , said.
“Whoever showed up we supported. It’s not that I intentionally picked and picked people, it didn’t,” Popal said. “We have done our best since the fall of Kabul. as individual [we] joined with what little power 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 gathered outside the hotel, Popal recalled. Two brothers of the players were physically assaulted and a father beaten. Now, he said, the players no longer feel safe. “Items like this put them in greater danger,” he said.
Najma Arefi, 19, fears that the hotel incident will happen again. While she was lucky, she said, to flee with her family, she thinks of her teammates who are nervous about her families in Afghanistan. “This type of article makes things difficult for each of us and also for our families,” she said.
Arefi grew up playing football in Herat from the age of 13. When the Taliban took over, she was one of many players who were able to evacuate with Popal’s help.
“We feel very sorry for ourselves, for the other girls who are still in Afghanistan, we had a lot of players at different clubs,” Arefi said. “We want the BBC to apologize and remove his article.”
It is not the first time that the team’s identity has been questioned, recalls 20-year-old Narges Mayeli. Months after arriving in England, police visited his hotel requesting evidence and evidence to prove they are genuine footballers after a Daily Mail article, he said.
“They all showed it,” Mayeli said. “This is the second time the media has attacked our team in this way and this is very, very, very disappointing.” She said her escape was dangerous, with the threat of armed attacks and explosions. “We are just teenagers, we had a lot of traumas and it was very difficult for us,” Mayeli said through tears. “We are trying to forget those days.”
The BBC article refers to a list of evacuees sent to the British authorities in order to enter the UK. Popal said that he 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. After having to leave her family in Afghanistan to escape with her life, she said that she now worries about them, fearing that the article will lead to their being punished by the Taliban.
“I am so upset that my team is attacked like this. The article says our lives are not worth saving,” Howaida said. “From this article [was] published, I feel like I lost my family, and I lost my country again.”
Popal remains proud that she has not turned her back on the woman of her country, she said. “I’m happy as an individual, with what little power 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 been careful 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 footballers still in Afghanistan.
The spokesperson said: “We have considered the concerns of the people mentioned in the story and removed them, even if their names are still used in other media, such as The Guardian.”