‘The heart that is still beating’

MELBOURNE, Australia — Grey clouds loom large over Ron Barassi Reserve, a small community ground tucked away by the Yarra River in Docklands. The Bolte Bridge towers overhead and, in its shade, a small group of parents usher their children from a nearby playground to waiting cars in anticipation of coming rain.

Across the way, a scant handful of spectators are on hand to watch a women’s soccer game, while the markings for a rugby pitch have been laid across the field with two sets of uprights on either side of the halfway line. The previous night, someone had taken advantage of the ground’s out-of-the-way location to do burnouts on a dirt bike, leaving a series of circular indentations in their wake.

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It’s not glamorous but, for the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team — the AWT — it is now home.

Two months prior, the team had staged their first fixture at the venue in front of a packed house. Australian and international journalists were on hand to capture the moment, and representatives from soccer stakeholders, refugee groups and government were in attendance at a function to welcome the women to their new fortress. In just their second competitive contest after fleeing in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the team were the talk of the town as they romped to a 10-0 win over Melton Phoenix — scoring their first goals in Australia and securing their first win in the country.

Yet now, a Sunday afternoon many months on, the minimal audience suggests the novelty has worn off.

Nonetheless, while the fanfare may have dissipated, the coming game against ETA Buffalo represents a significant milestone in the journey the Afghan women began when they arrived in Australia last year. Buffalo was the first competitive opponent the team in exile had faced in their new home and, despite the AWT having the better of the chances, the pair played out a 0-0 draw. This rematch, then, represents the most meaningful opportunity yet to gauge how the team have progressed as a soccer unit in their adopted homeland.

Back in August 2021, the AWT was part of the tide of humanity that made its way to Kabul Airport in an attempt to flee for their lives in the face of an imminent Taliban takeover of the country. After losing significant ground to the insurgents as Western forces withdrew, the Afghan government had dissolved as the Taliban encircled and began to enter Kabul, with the airport — still under the control of NATO troops — providing the last flicker of hope for civilians seeking to escape. Vision soon emerged of people, desperately running alongside and even attempting to grab onto planes taking off to try and stow away. Some fell to their deaths, including Zaki Anwari, 19, who had played for Afghanistan’s national youth soccer team.

Described as a team “built to fight Taliban ideology” by team co-founder Khalida Popal, there was little ambiguity surrounding the mortal danger the AWT were in.

Popal, now based in Denmark, had been fielding increasingly distressing messages from those on the ground and was frantically working with the team’s former coach Kelly Lindsey, former assistant coach and one-time U.S. Marine Haley Carter, and representatives of global players union FIFPro, such as Kat Craig, to find a way to get those associated with the players out of the country.

This eventually led to a link-up with an Australian-based team featuring former Olympian and human rights lawyer Nikki Dryden, Human Rights for All director Alison Battisson, and former Socceroos star Craig Foster, who began the process of working with figures in the Australian government to secure the team’s passage Down Under.

“I think it was just coincidence that, at the right time and at the right place, there were a group of ex-female athletes who have had their careers and they’d moved onto other careers in law or consultancies or something else,” Battisson told ESPN.

“We didn’t have to explain to each other why young women in Afghanistan would be under threat from the Taliban because they kicked a ball around — at whatever level that they were doing that.

“All the angst and the fight that female athletes have had for recognition and equal pay also came out. It was like: ‘These women are under threat and nobody is going to care about them unless we do.’

“So we stepped up.”

“When we went to the airport we knew all the danger we were facing, but we did it to survive and we did it to play soccer again under the name of Afghanistan.”

– Mursal

It’s easy to see why so much of the media coverage of the players’ experiences has placed soccer on the periphery since the team landed. Emphasis instead has been on the terrifying yet extraordinary circumstances surrounding their evacuation and their refusal to be bowed by the new Taliban rulers.

As matters of newsworthiness and global significance, this is understandable. And being a symbol of resistance and inspiration is a role the group relishes; they take great pride in sharing their stories with the world and serving as a beacon of hope to the women in Afghanistan and around the world.

Yet these moments of defiance have been interspersed with a series of more personal challenges. Powerful symbols of hope and strength the women are, but even figures of inspiration need to find a job or go to school (or both) and grapple with a new language, culture and life.

And soccer, that universal language, has been at the heart of these efforts.

When the AWT landed in Australia, soccer matters weren’t exactly at the forefront of their minds. The country was still observing strict screening of all incoming arrivals due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that their first two weeks in their new country were spent in the isolation of hotel quarantine.

Upon their exit, uncertainty surrounding their future reigned. Housing needed to be found — most of the group settled in Melbourne — and their asylum claims began processing. Compounding the challenges that suddenly confront every refugee in their new home, the trauma of what the team had experienced in their escape from Afghanistan was still fresh in their minds, as was the fear for the family and friends that they had been forced to leave behind.

At the time, Popal was in regular contact, staging team meetings from her European outpost as she sought as best she could to support them logistically and mentally, as well as give the players a forum to provide each other peer support. Understandably, soccer took a back seat.

“I didn’t want to push them as someone like their mentor, someone they trust and lean on,” Popal said. “I wanted to give them time. That’s why I was pushing everyone to just leave them, just let them be ready and prepared and let them say when and if they want to play soccer.

“I was always scared that they would come and say that they hate soccer and we don’t want to go back.

“I was ready for that.”

But it soon became apparent that the players didn’t hate football. In December, some of the players, supported by advocacy group Women Onside, were able to be embedded into existing clubs from Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane to take part in the Afghan National Cup, a community football tournament in Sydney.

“Football … for the women to be able to play football in Australia is a huge part of their healing,” Battisson said. “You can see them when they come together in this team and this team spirit, how healing sport is.”

Members of the team also began to investigate their opportunities to play with clubs that were close to their new accommodations. This is what was largely expected from the AWT from those that were supporting the team: That they would remain in contact with each other, but gradually disperse and assimilate into existing Australian clubs to continue their soccer careers.

And then a request was made.

“We would meet each other, hear how everyone is doing and what they need,” Popal explained.

“Then they started to go to some training here and there. Then they asked: ‘Can we play football again? Can we play as a team together?’

“It was a team voice. Not individuals. The entire team asked if they could play games as a team and represent their country.

“We feel like everything was taken away and we are forced to leave Afghanistan. We are forced to be in this situation that we didn’t plan. We stopped dreaming.”

In the end, despite everything they were subjected to for simply being a part of it, the defiant group didn’t want to stop being a team or lose the support they offered each other.

“In Afghanistan, we were always together, playing,” AWT member Manozh, whose last name has been withheld for safety reasons, said. “For now, we need to play here.

“My English isn’t good. My teammate went to another club and it was all Aussie players and she couldn’t understand how to play, how to pass, how to shoot. That’s one of the reasons we are all together.”

With the decision made that the team wanted to continue to play together in their new home, Popal approached Foster and he immediately sprang into action.

Having previously worked together during the efforts to free refugee soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi, Foster reached out to Melbourne Victory’s director of football John Didulica, who needed little convincing to begin the process of swinging the resources of the A-Leagues giant behind the team. Foster also secured an open-ended commitment from the club’s board and managing director Caroline Carnegie to provide full logistical, administrative and coaching support.

A new kit, inspired by the Victory strip but utilising the red colour scheme of Afghanistan, was sourced for the team as well as boots, shin guards and other soccer necessities. Ron Barassi Reserve was found as a home in partnership with the City of Melbourne, and the club was allocated training time on the pitch that houses Victory’s women’s and academy sides. Negotiations with Football Victoria took place to ensure the team could play in the state competition, and bureaucratic hoops to secure international clearances from FIFA were jumped through. The most successful women’s coach in Australian league history and a current two-time defending champion, Victory’s A-League Women coach Jeff Hopkins, volunteered to lead the team.

“There is a symbolism to the work they do,” Didulica said. “They are a metaphor for the struggles that many women are experiencing around the world, and their journey can be put up as a totem for how things can go well if they’re supported.

“But I think there is this human, base joy from just being part of a team and just being once again playing football. You only need to go to one of their games, to see their smiles and the euphoric sensations that follow goals, celebrations, the wins; it’s wonderful to watch.

“And that’s really important. It does normalise them again, it gets them back to some level of routine and these things are incredibly important as they’re trying to find their place in a new world away from family and start a new life for themselves.”

Didulica and Victory’s goal was to make the team as professional as circumstances would allow. In the off-season, it is hoped that a select few from the AWT will commence training with Victory’s elite development squad, with an eye on developing them to the point that they can serve as train-on players for the A-League Women side.

From there, anything is possible.

Some of the players talk of playing for Victory, and most talk of one day being able to represent Afghanistan again. Complications with international eligibility aside, a few even raise the prospect of becoming Matildas.

In part, the commitment of Victory is born of a desire to support an extraordinary group of women linked through soccer that have been forced to endure so much through no fault of their own. However, Didulica, who belongs to an Australian-Croatian community that itself has significant roots in seeking a new life in Australia post-World War II, explained there’s also “an important dimension to Australia’s sensibilities towards refugees and asylum seekers.”

“In more recent times there’s this sense that they get to the back of the line and they get the leftovers of what everyone else has — the last crumbs on the table,” Didulica said.

“What we wanted to do was invert that and demonstrate that these women have undertaken huge sacrifices to even come to Australia. They’re incredibly powerful and brave and resilient young women. They’re the sort of qualities that we think should be put on a pedestal. They shouldn’t be hidden in the dark.

“So by throwing whatever resources we could and amplifying their stories as much as we can, giving them the best possible opportunities, I think we’re trying to start a different conversation around asylum seekers and refugees more generally.”

The players care little for the lack of fanfare that greeted them at Ron Barassi Reserve for their re-match with Buffalo. Having hit their stride with four straight wins on their way to second on the Victorian Women’s State League 4 West table closing the gap on top-of-the-tree Gisborne Soccer Club was prominent in their minds. And make no mistake, while the AWT are exceedingly grateful for all the support they’ve received and for the opportunities they have in their new homeland, they still want to win. They want to win every game. By a lot. And they hate losing.

Yet as soon as the opening whistle blew, the form guide went out the window as Buffalo seized the early momentum. Across a nervy opening 10 minutes, the visitors controlled the battle for the midfield and the AWT attack was frustrated in their attempts to get in behind their foe’s defence. Mursal, one of the two centre-backs on the team, staged several interventions to prevent Buffalo from breaking through, and continuously rose her voice to encourage her teammates to maintain their defensive duties and not get sucked in trying to force the issue further afield.

When she’s not barking instructions to her teammates, Mursal counts herself as a big Barcelona fan. However, her favourite player and inspiration is Paris Saint-Germain star Sergio Ramos, and, just like her idol, she wears the No. 4 on her back. Before her desire to play soccer had forced her to evacuate for Australia, she had been studying graphic design. But now, inspired by Popal, she has switched her focus to sports management.

“In a foreign country, where you don’t know anyone, you have your second family — and that’s my teammates.”

– Mursal

Sufficiently fluent in English, Mursal’s transition to Australia hasn’t faced the barriers that some of her non-English-speaking teammates have confronted, but that doesn’t mean it’s been smooth sailing. Her family remains in Afghanistan as she begins a new life in Australia — a common source of fear and anxiety for many members of the team — and so matchdays and training sessions have become incredibly important; she can join her “second family” and partake in what she calls one of her “loves.”

“When you don’t have your first family, you have your second family,” Mursal told ESPN at the offices of Professional Footballers Australia, who are offering the players education and vocational support as newly minted members of the player’s union. “In a foreign country, where you don’t know anyone, you have your second family — and that’s my teammates, Khalida and all of those [who] have supported us to come here and are still supporting us to improve.

“When the Taliban were trying to take over Afghanistan, we stopped playing soccer because our lives were in danger. Our coach told us we can’t play anymore and the federation said there were many dangers. So we stopped playing.

“After such a long time, eight or nine months, we were able to play soccer again. We were able to feel the ground again. It was amazing. For me, it felt like after such a long time you are meeting your love again. It was like this.”

Mursal and her defensive partners were eventually rewarded for their efforts in battening down the hatches as the AWT began to wrest control of the game from Buffalo. A breakthrough to make it 1-0 came after a quarter of an hour, and attacker Manozh doubled the advantage just three minutes later when she pounced on a loose ball on the edge of the area.

Tall, pacey and with her hair kept short, Manozh cuts an easily recognisable and intimidating figure at the front of the AWT attack; she’s just as capable of bursting behind her opponents with pace as she is shrugging off their defensive attention with her physical profile. This is matched with a keen eye for goal, and she is one of the team’s leading scorers.

Like Mursal, Manozh has her soccer favourites. A Manchester United supporter, her favourite player is Cristiano Ronaldo, whose signature leaping celebration she has made her own, emulating it when she scored her second goal of the game just before half-time.

She has been playing soccer in an organised fashion for only four years, meaning she’s yet to properly scratch the surface of her potential, but she has loved and watched the game since she was six years old. Outside soccer, she is adjusting to a Melbourne environment she describes as “f—— cold,” studying to improve her English and working multiple jobs — an example of the many hats that refugees must wear as they lay down roots in the aftermath of their forced relocations.

For her, soccer offers not just a place to be with her teammates but also ambition — a desire to go as far as she can. A newer favourite player of her’s, found via a prolific Instagram habit, is Victory ALW striker, and potential future teammate, Maja Markovski.

“Maybe after this season or next season, we could go to another team — or even join Melbourne Victory,” she said. “Because we can do anything in soccer.”

Manozh’s second strike of the day, the effort that earned the “Siuuu” celebration, came after fellow attacker Nilab had got to the byline and cut the ball back — albeit it was quite clear that the AWT No. 7’s first instinct had been to find an angle for a shot herself.

Her hair also cut short, Nilab’s competitive spirit and desire to win are apparent the moment she steps onto the pitch, and her ability on the ball is among the highest on the team. The attacker’s arms are adorned with tattoos and, while she doesn’t possess the height of Manozh, she carries the same hunger for goals. It was Nilab who had opened the scoring against Melton Phoenix in the team’s first game at Ron Barassi Reserve, going down in the record books as the first member of the team to find the back of the net in Australia.

Nilab had been forced to wait until the half-hour mark to enter the game against Buffalo, a sanction for arriving at the ground after the time set by Hopkins and agreed to by the team, and she was eager to make up for the lost time finding the net with a quick-fire brace in the second half as the AWT eased into a 4-0 lead.

Soccer has played a big part in Nilab’s life. Mickey Hodgson, marketing manager of Ultra Football, a specialist soccer shop based in Melbourne that has partnered with Victory to kit the team out, recalled how Ultra had made an immediate impression when the AWT players arrived for their kit launch photoshoot — for which Nilab became one of the faces.

Hodgson explained that Nilab revealed at a subsequent visit with a translator how the store had brought forth memories of a printing business that she had frequently visited while growing up in Kabul. There, as a young girl rapidly falling in love with soccer, she had watched numbers and names be pressed onto the back of shirts for sale. And now, more than a decade on and half a world away, in a place where there isn’t a fear of reprisal for loving the game, she was reminded of those happier times.

“[The] first time she came in for the kit launch, she was the one that pulled me aside, looking around and you could see that she was pretty amazed by the whole thing,” Hodgson said. “She was like, ‘This is my dream to work here in Australia.'”

In making it 5-0 inside an hour, Nilab had effectively killed off any chances of an already unlikely Buffalo comeback; her side putting in a five-star demonstration of how far they had come in just a few short months. She wasn’t done, however (not surprising given her competitive temperament), and she added a final exclamation point, as well as completed her hat trick to make it 6-0 with five minutes remaining.

There were appeals from the defence for the assistant to flag for offside, but it didn’t come. It was the correct call, even if it did attract further raised eyebrows from the Buffalo bench given that Didulica was the linesman on that side of the field — the Victory football director lured down to Docklands by the opportunity to measure the AWT’s progress and roped into serving as the team’s “volunteer” to ruin his white sneakers in the mud and run the line.

Didulica couldn’t stick around after the game, however, as he had to rush to a nearby hospital to accompany a player who had suffered a wrist injury during the match. Without the player’s family in Australia, Didulica would serve as a figure of authority pushing to get her seen and treated as soon as possible, as well as serve as a trusted and reassuring presence as the challenges of language barriers and confusion over masks were confronted.

Hopkins, meanwhile, addressed the players who remained, congratulating them on another win, providing encouragement for their performance and touching base about the plans for training in the week ahead. As the season progresses, he’s been gradually trying to partner with the squad to increase the level of discipline and accountability. A hard-nosed and feared defender in his playing days, Hopkins has morphed into one of the most well-liked and well-respected coaches in Australian soccer in his post-playing career, taking both Brisbane Roar and Victory to A-League Women titles and working with Matildas such as Clare Polkinghorne, Tameka Yallop and Alex Chidiac.

“I’d heard all the stories about them and just wanted to try and help in some way. It seemed the right thing to do,” Hopkins said.

“Once I got involved with them … their enthusiasm is infectious and you want to be around them. They’re playing the game because they love to play the game. They’re playing the game for the right reasons. You can’t fathom that they’re not allowed to go and kick a ball around in their own country, their backyard.”

“These women, they are young women, their dream is to represent Afghanistan. They’re back on the pitch playing because they don’t want to give up.”

– Khalida Popal

With FIFA preparing to descend upon Australia for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, championing progress in the women’s game and the power that soccer has to fight gender discrimination, the AWT players and their advocates want to know why Taliban-controlled Afghanistan can field a men’s team in international soccer but not a women’s team.

They don’t want the men’s team to be forced to stop playing; they are proud of their accomplishments and want to see them representing their nation on the international stage. Rather, they want the same opportunities, and if the Taliban won’t agree to that, they want FIFA to sanction a women’s team to compete internationally anyway. Further, the goal isn’t to have the global governing body recognise the team in Melbourne exclusively as Afghanistan’s representatives on the international stage; players were scattered across the globe in their flight from Afghanistan, and an international squad would be drawn from the best talent that has settled around the world.

“These women, they are young women, their dream is to represent Afghanistan,” Popal said. “They’re back on the pitch playing because they don’t want to give up.”

Weeks on from that win over Buffalo, the AWT is engaged in a dogfight for top place in Women’s State League 4 West. Despite having a goal difference of plus 50, they trail Sydenham Park and Gisborne in the race for the title with just a single game remaining in their season. Fittingly, that game, a home fixture against Brimbank Stallions, will be played Aug. 28 — almost a year to the day since they huddled on the floor of a jet taking them to a new life in Australia.

Didulica jokes that Hopkins will lose his job if he doesn’t deliver a title that can sit alongside Victory’s ALM and ALW honours at AAMI Park headquarters but, ultimately, the players have that bigger goal in mind.

“When we went to the airport we knew all the danger we were facing, but we did it to survive and we did it to play soccer again under the name of Afghanistan,” Mursal said.

“We all want to play under the flag of Afghanistan again and reflect a message to the world that Afghanistan is still alive. And for all the women back in Afghanistan that need support, we are a team, a group, an agent for all those women back in Afghanistan.

“We are the heart that is still beating.”