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Goal! Now it's football for Afghan girls

August 11, 2003 12:51 IST

It's the most popular sport in Afghanistan.

For barefoot boys as young as four in tatty shirts, to turbaned men in their sixties, football is a passion.

Kabul's Olympic Stadium, a venue of executions during Taliban rule, is often packed with fans watching amateur league games.

And these days, football is attracting the most unusual of players: teenage girls.

Once or twice a week, a dozen girls in black school uniform, black shoes, and white headscarves or "chadars" gather in a dusty Kabul school ground surrounded by a high wall for a kick around.

"I like football because it is the best sport. It is the king of all sports," puffs Humaira, 17, during a break in the game.

Humaira then goes off and does what two years ago would have been unthinkable during the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban: she removes the white scarf from her head and wraps it around her shoulder and waist.

This allows her to move freely and run faster.

Until the overthrow of the Taliban by a US-led coalition in late 2001, women's football was out of question -- indeed women were not even allowed to venture outdoors without clumsy coverall garments called burqas.

And women accused of adultery and other violations of Islamic law were among those publicly executed while kneeling on the goal line at the national stadium.

That horror seems a world away today.

MAKESHIFT PITCH

Humaira shouts out to her teammates, who desperately try to kick the ball towards an imaginary goal.

When the ball eventually reaches one side of the ground, Humaira's team shout "goal!" and it is. But there are no goalposts as the girls don't have a proper football pitch.

Strict Islamic tradition still discourages girls from playing in public, limiting them to practice in the cramped school playground which doubles as a volleyball and basketball court.

"We're happy now that we can play, but we don't have a place to practice and we don't have proper kit," said Nassrin, 16, as she wiped sweat from her brow in the midday sun.

Many of the girls brought home their love for football after years living as refugees in neighbouring Pakistan.

And a few lucky ones have access to overseas games on Kabul's patchy cable television network.

But none has ever watched a live match in this football-crazy country where women often shy away from going out in public since they risk being stared at and teased.

The girls say they need a covered football pitch, but their school does not have the funds. A lack of women coaches compounds the problem. Proper strips and boots are non-existent.

Afghanistan's Football Federation has tried to help, but with limited funds, it can only encourage the girls to continue playing in their own space and time.

"The reality is our society is not yet ready to see Afghan girls play football in public," said football coach and federation member Habib Ullah Niazai.

"But we will continue to make people aware and hopefully we will have enough funds to help these girls fulfil their dreams."

An appeal for help from abroad has yet to yield any results.

Perhaps surprisingly, the girls get most support from parents thrilled to have their daughters play football.

"My parents don't have a problem with me playing...they even gave me permission," grinned Nassrin.

DAVID WHO?

And they seem to know enough about international football to remain inspired and motivated.

"I want to be a good player because I like Ronaldo," giggled sixteen-year-old Salima about her Brazilian hero.

"I like Maradona from Argentina," chimed Humaira.

English superstar David Beckham, however, clearly needs to work on his Afghan image.

"David who?" asked Mariam, 15.

"No, I just like Alvardo...I mean Rivaldo," shrieked Salda, 16.

Despite Afghanistan's lingering religious conservatism, some male football fans have no objections to women playing.

"One day we hope to see our Afghan women take part in international games -- that would make us very proud," said one fan, Sayeed Ali Hussni, at a match on a sunny afternoon at the stadium.

But Afghan girls who have caught "football fever" know that prospect could be some time away.

"For many years, there has been fighting in our country and we have not been able to play our favourite games," said Salda. "But now we have a chance, we are still facing difficulties."

But Humaira said the problems would not stop them playing the game they love. "It's a game for everyone...even for Afghan girls like us," she said.

Angie Ramos
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