Women footballers who fled Afghanistan in 2021 slam BBC article ‘fake footballers’

Footballers who fled Afghanistan after Kabul fell to the Taliban in 2021 have criticized a recent BBC article that labeled some of the evacuees as “fake footballers”.

BBC Newsnight’s investigation found that some of the descriptions given by UK visa applicants as internationals or members of a regional team “appear to be incorrect”. According to the report, there is resentment among “real players” now living under Taliban rule.

The Guardian spoke to four Herat players who said they were upset by the BBC Online article, which they say puts them at greater risk, and feared for families who remain in Afghanistan.

Other players who were evacuated in 2021 targeted the BBC story on Twitter on Friday for questioning their integrity, naming people without their consent and leaving players concerned for their safety amid rising anti-migrant protests. Several player names were removed after the Guardian reached out to the BBC.

In August 2021, the Afghanistan women’s national team was evacuated to Australia from Kabul, while the youth football team was granted asylum in Portugal. Months later, 130 women footballers and their families from the youth development team fled to Pakistan on temporary visas before securing a safe place in the UK.

Khalida Popal, the former women’s national football team captain who helped evacuate players, said she was very upset and concerned by the BBC article which labeled 13 evacuees as “fake footballers”.

“The reason I’m concerned is for both women in Afghanistan and women outside of Afghanistan,” Popal said. “As they say, the ‘real players’ [were] left, they’re still in Afghanistan, they’re actually trying to pressure the Taliban to look into it [for] them whom we have been trying to protect for many years.”

Popal, who fled Afghanistan in 2011, was approached on social media by distraught teammates and players after the fall of Kabul. To help the players, she asked for their photos and player IDs. The first team to report was Herat’s team, Popal said, followed by players from other provinces who formed the group of players who had traveled 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. When she arrived in England, she split the group into two teams, Team A and B, who trained separately because of their different levels of ability, not “because one team couldn’t play football,” as the BBC article put it, she said

“We supported those who applied. It’s not that I intentionally picked and chose people, I wasn’t,” Popal said. “We have done our best since the fall of Kabul. As individuals [we] came along with what little strength we had to use our network to save as many women as possible when the government was failing the women of Afghanistan.”

When the team first arrived in Britain, anti-refugee protesters gathered outside the hotel, Popal recalled. Two of the players’ brothers were physically attacked and a father was beaten. Now, she said, players don’t feel safe anymore. “Items like this put them in greater danger,” she said.

Najma Arefi, 19, fears the incident will repeat itself at the hotel. While she was lucky enough to flee with her family, she thinks of her teammates who fear for their families in Afghanistan. “This type of article makes it difficult for each and every one of us and also for our families,” she said.

Arefi grew up playing soccer in Herat from the age of 13. When the Taliban took power, she was one of the many players who were able to be evacuated with the help of Popal.

“We feel so sorry for ourselves, for the other girls who are still in Afghanistan, we had a lot of female footballers in different clubs,” Arefi said. “We want the BBC to apologize and remove your article.”

It’s not the first time the team’s identity has been questioned, recalls 20-year-old Narges Mayeli. Months after they arrived in England, police visited their hotel and, according to an article in the Daily Mail, requested evidence and evidence to show they are real footballers.

“They proved it, everyone,” Mayeli said. “This is the second time the media has attacked our team like this and it’s really, really, really disappointing.” She said her escape was dangerous, with the risk of armed attacks and explosions. “We’re just a bunch of teenage girls, we’ve had a lot of trauma and it’s been really difficult for us,” Mayeli said through tears. “We try to forget those days.”

The BBC article refers to a list of evacuees submitted to British authorities for entry into the UK. Popal said she has never been in contact with any government.

Mozhdah Howaida, 21, was contacted by the BBC about the article but saw the news too late, she said. After leaving her family in Afghanistan to escape with her life, she said she now worries about them because she fears the article could lead to punishment by the Taliban.

“I am so upset that my team is being attacked like this. The article says our lives are not worth saving,” Howaida said. “Since this article [was] published, I feel like I’ve lost my family and I’ve lost my country again.”

Popal is proud not to have 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 level of football.”

Answering questions from the Guardian, a BBC spokesman said care had been taken not to identify anyone who had not previously been identified as a “real life footballer” in other media. They said the investigation came after Newsnight was contacted by former women footballers who are still in Afghanistan.

The spokesman said: “We have taken into account 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.”


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