The future is wide open for this Afghan football team

Members of the Afghan women’s youth development football team, who fled their home country last year, are making new lives for themselves in the UK.

By Sunshine Flint — April 12, 2022

In the confusion and terror caused by the stunningly swift fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban after the United States’ formal withdrawal in 2021, the most pressing question was, “What will happen to the women?” Journalists, doctors, politicians, teachers, athletes — any women who had a profession outside their home would soon find they no longer did and that their lives, in many cases, were in danger. For members of the Afghan Women’s Youth Development Football team, who were well known in their communities, leaving the country was the only option.

The team members, support staff, and their families gathered in Kabul and, after weeks of trying to fly out, finally were able to enter Pakistan overland. It took an international effort led by Khalida Popal, the former Afghanistan women’s team captain who now lives in Denmark, and supported by Leeds United Football club chairman Andrea Radrizzani, various nonprofit organizations, and New York–based Tzedek Association, to get the team on a flight out that was chartered by Kim Kardashian. In all, 132 people, including 18 team members, coaches, support staff, and their family members, arrived in the UK last November.


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“I used the power of my network, the power of sport, to get them out. Now they are in a safe country and have support,” says Popal. “They left their dreams, but they want to learn English, go to university, engage in society, go to work.”

The team members are currently in temporary accommodations in the north of England, near Leeds. “The players have been through a very difficult journey, living in a hotel for more than four months,” says Valeria Ignarra, managing director of Play for Change, the organization founded by Radrizzani that is supporting the team’s everyday needs. Play for Change has helped them enroll in school, organized their twice-a-week practices and social activities, and is aiding them with mental health support, job counseling, and permanent accommodations.

The Afghan women's youth development football team

Sam Todd

Multiple groups worked together to help members of the Afghan Women’s Youth Development Football team safely leave the country last year. Top row: Sevin Zeynap, Hadise, Sabriah, Dina, Sosan, Asma; bottom row: Fatemah, Fatemah, Narges, Sahar, Saweeta.

The team has been back on the pitch since December, practicing at Leeds United Academy. “When the Taliban took over, I said to myself, ‘Sevin, you are no more,’” recalls Sevin Azimi, 20, a right midfielder. “My goal and dream in life was gone from one day to another. Now in the UK I’m happy I can continue to study and play football.”

Team captain Sabriah Nowroozi, 24, who started playing football at 13 in her home province of Herat, was previously studying psychology in Afghanistan. “Now I will captain my team, go to university, and get my coaching license.”

Part of outfitting the group who left Afghanistan with nothing — not even phones — included finding them laptops and other technology. A call went out on LinkedIn, and HP was one of the companies that answered. “We had the power to make this happen,” says Dave Prezzano, managing director of Northwest Europe at HP. “We all saw our role clearly, to provide the laptops that could help these courageous young women, who risked their lives to find a place of safety, to resume their education.”

Sam Todd

Sahar, a defender, shooting a goal during an evening practice session at Leeds United Academy's fields.

HP UK’s Head of Ecommerce Rebecca Robinson says that once her group got the necessary approvals, they were able to get the laptops to the team and their families in just a couple of days. “To be in a position to do something to materially support these brave young women who were denied basic freedoms and had to flee for their lives was humbling and gratifying,” says Robinson, who is also cochair of the UK Women’s Impact Network at HP. “There was never a question of if, just a question of how.”

The laptops were not only a way of helping the team with their education, but to stay in touch with family, friends, and teammates still in Afghanistan. As they adjust to life in the UK, they fear for the safety of the women and family members back home, and they’re resolute in their commitment not to forget them. “I can keep up with my studies and stay in touch with my friends and family I had to leave behind,” says captain Nowroozi.

“My goal and dream in life was gone from one day to another. Now in the UK I’m happy I can continue to study and play football.”

— Sevin Azimi, right midfielder

By January the under-18s were fully vaccinated, and many of the team members have been able to start school and pursue their education on their way to their wide-open future.

And for a group who experienced the deep trauma of their country falling to the Taliban in mere days, and leaving everything they ever knew to live as refugees in an unfamiliar land, they are determined to dream big in their new lives.

“In five or 10 years I see myself as a role model for women and girls in Afghanistan and coaching under-18s football teams,” says Nowroozi. “I am very passionate about this.”