‘Football Is Like Food’: Afghan Female Soccer Players Find a Home in Italy

AVEZZANO, Italy — Two days after Taliban fighters seized Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest metropolis, the Italian journalist Stefano Liberti obtained a message through Facebook: “Hi sir, we are in trouble. Can you help us?”

The message final month got here from Susan, 21, the previous captain of Bastan, a girls’s soccer staff that had as soon as been the topic of a documentary by Mr. Liberti and his colleague Mario Poeta.

“Football is like food to me,” Susan would say later, and the worry that she may by no means play once more underneath Taliban rule, “made me feel as though I was dead.” Like others interviewed in this text, solely her first title is used to guard her id.

Thirteen days after she made contact with Mr. Liberti, Susan arrived in Italy together with two of her teammates, their coach and a number of other members of the family. They touched down at Rome’s primary airport after a flight made potential by the 2 journalists, a Florence-based NGO, a number of Italian lawmakers and officers in the Italian Defense and Foreign Ministries.

The Herat group, 16 folks in all, transited by way of a tent camp run by the Italian Red Cross in Avezzano, in the Apennine Mountains, the place greater than 1,400 Afghans evacuated to Italy have quarantined in latest weeks.

Susan lined up with different Afghan refugees for a garments distribution on the Red Cross camp.Credit…Fabio Bucciarelli for The New York Times

Like so many Afghans, the gamers left behind the lives they’d constructed in order to make the journey. Susan halted her college research in English literature to depart the nation along with her mother and father, two sisters and a brother.

Women had been banned from sports activities through the first Taliban period. Even after the group was ousted from energy in 2001, taking part in sports activities continued to be a problem for Afghan girls, and for the boys who helped them.

In “Herat Football Club” the journalists’ 2017 documentary concerning the staff, Najibullah, the coach, stated that he had been repeatedly threatened by the Taliban for teaching younger girls.

The Taliban’s return to energy has raised fears not solely that restrictions on sports activities might be reimposed, but in addition that the feminine athletes who emerged in the previous 20 years might be topic to reprisals.

Khalida Popal, the previous captain of the nationwide girls’s staff who left Afghanistan in 2011 and now lives in Copenhagen, used social and mainstream media final month to advise girls who’d performed sports activities in Afghanistan to close down their social media accounts, take away any on-line presence and even burn their uniforms.

“They have nobody to go to, to seek protection, to ask for help if they are in danger,” she stated in an interview with Reuters.

Another Herat participant, Fatema, 19, additionally left behind her college research, in public administration and coverage. She arrived in Italy with a brother, however her father fell in poor health whereas they tried to get by way of the crowds on the Kabul airport, so he and her mom remained behind.

“They said to me, ‘You go, go for your future, for football, for your education,’” Fatema stated.

“Playing football makes me feel powerful and an example for other girls, to show that you can do anything you want to do,” Fatema stated. She expressed hope that will be the case in Italy, too. “I want to make it my country now,” she stated.

Fatema on the tent camp in Avezzano final week. “Playing football makes me feel powerful and an example for other girls,” she stated.Credit…Fabio Bucciarelli for The New York Times

The oldest of the three gamers, Maryam, 23, had already earned a diploma in administration and had labored as a driving faculty teacher in Herat. She noticed herself as a position mannequin, inspiring younger girls by instance “because of football, because of driving.”

“I was an active member of society,” Maryam stated, a position she was sure she couldn’t have underneath the Taliban.

Maryam was the one staff member to reach in Italy alone, although she stated she hoped that her household would be part of her. “It’s hard for me to smile,” she stated. “But I hope my future will be good, certainly better than under the Taliban.”

The gamers say that lots of their Herat teammates are nonetheless in Kabul, hoping to search out transit to Australia, the place some gamers on Afghanistan’s girls’s nationwide staff have been evacuated.

Last Friday, the three girls and their households had been relocated to the Italian metropolis of Florence. In Italy, the nationwide soccer federation, some soccer golf equipment and the captain of the nationwide staff, Sara Gama, have supplied their help to the younger Afghan gamers.

Administering a coronavirus swab check on the Avezzano camp this month.Credit…Fabio Bucciarelli for The New York Times

“There’s been a lot of solidarity,” Mr. Liberti, the documentary maker, stated.

And on a heat afternoon final week, Fatema and Maryam did one thing they’d by no means accomplished earlier than: They kicked a ball round with a couple of boys.

Asked the way it felt, Maryam grinned broadly and gave a thumbs up.

“It felt good,” added Fatema. “People didn’t look at us as though we had done something wrong.”