Afghan girls’ soccer team dreams big after finding new home in Portugal
LISBON – Leaving her homeland, Afghanistan, was painful, says 15-year-old Sarah. But now safely in Portugal, she hopes to pursue her dream of playing football professionally – and possibly meeting her idol, star striker Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sarah was one of many players on the Afghan national women’s football team who fled their country in fear after the hard-line Islamist movement of the Taliban took power in August. Portugal granted asylum to young footballers.
“I’m free,” she said, smiling from ear to ear as she visited Lisbon’s Belem Tower on the Tagus River with her mother and teammates.
“My dream is to be a good player like Ronaldo – and I want to be a great businesswoman here in Portugal,” she said.
She hoped to return home one day, but only if she could live freely. His mother, who asked that Reuters did not use their last name, had experienced firsthand a previous era of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. She is less optimistic that they will ever be able to return.
Taliban leaders promised to respect women’s rights, but under their first government women could not work and girls were banned from school. Women were required to cover their faces and be accompanied by a male relative when leaving the house. A senior Taliban official said after the August 15 takeover that women would likely not be allowed to play sports because it was “not necessary” and their bodies could be exposed.
“The reason we took on this mission (to evacuate the team) was to make sure they could aspire and play the sport they love,” said Farkhunda Muhtaj, captain of the women’s national team. senior from Afghanistan, who flew to Lisbon on Wednesday to surprise the players of the youth squad.
From her home in Canada, where she works as an assistant soccer coach at a local university, Muhtaj has been in contact with the girls throughout the evacuation process, codenamed Operation Soccer Balls. He managed to save a total of 80 people – the team of young women and family members, including the babies. They landed in Portugal on September 19.
When Muhtaj showed up on Wednesday night, the girls were elated. They kissed. Some could not hold back their tears.
âThey’ve been through so, so many challenges,â Muhtaj said. “They were just resilient and they were able to make it happen.”
A relative, Zaki Rasa, 25, recalled the chaos at Kabul airport, where he spent three days in anguish. He is now delighted to be in Portugal and wishes to continue his studies.
âThere is some uncertainty about the future,â he said. “The important thing is that we are safe.”
(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Angus MacSwan)