Former Afghanistan Women's Team Captain Khalida Popal Opens Up on Evacuating Country

Blake SchusterContributor IAugust 29, 2021

Former Afghanistan women's football captain Khalida Popal poses for a photographer at Farum Park stadion on December 21, 2020. - She no longer sleeps, but will not give up: from Denmark, where she lives, the former captain of the Afghan women's football team orchestrates the exfiltration of players threatened by the Taliban and intends to continue her fight for the emancipation of girls in her native country.  - Denmark OUT (Photo by Tariq Mikkel Khan / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP) / Denmark OUT (Photo by TARIQ MIKKEL KHAN/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images)
TARIQ MIKKEL KHAN/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

Khalida Popal, a former Afghan women's soccer player and a driving force behind the growth of the women's national team, has spent the days since the collapse of the Afghanistan government working tirelessly to evacuate as many of her players as possible. 

In conversation with ESPN's Jonathan Selvaraj, Popal, now based in Denmark after fleeing Afghanistan a decade ago, detailed some of the work she's doing from abroad in order to secure the safety of women athletes from the Taliban.

Khalida Popal @khalida_popal

Sleepless nights, being on the call all the time answering questions. Handling media, motiving players to keep fighting &amp; not give up even there were gunfires, they were beaten. Was tough. The 75 players and some family members are out of Afghanistan. Teamwork. Work continues. <a href="https://t.co/wv5WUF10Wd">pic.twitter.com/wv5WUF10Wd</a>

"We are a small group working day and night to get our first national team and their family members out of Afghanistan," Popal said. "We have not slept or eaten, we have not stopped working to get visas, paperwork and get them to the airport. It has been so difficult and complex to communicate from outside, to guide them and to encourage them to have the hope. Everyone in the team has had a special role to play. My main role was to reach out to people, seek for help for my girls in Afghanistan."

The first thing she had the players do was burn their jerseys for fear of the Taliban finding the women's players and persecuting them for their involvement in sports. 

Then, using her relationships in the soccer community and working with organizations like FIFPRO, Popal began coordinating the evacuation of nearly 80 players and their families. 

Working in the self-described role of "coach", Popal connected with governments in Canada, Australia and some contacts in the United States to orchestrate flights out of Kabul and to safety.

More than 75 players, some as young as 16, and their families were able to make it out earlier this week—though not without issue. Popal said a number of those she was working to evacuate were stopped and beaten at checkpoints en route to airfields. 

When players didn't know if they could continue on the journey, Popal motivated them to keep going. 

"I was trying to be positive and say, 'We are a football team, this is a football match. We are going to win. This is the final and we are going to win the championships we are playing and we will get the trophy. The trophy is to get to the gate. We have to get to the [US] soldiers. We have to get out of Afghanistan. That was the way to motivate them."

Popal said she hasn't rested much over the course of a few days while working to prepare evacuation plans. Even once her players were on flights out of Kabul she didn't let up. It's only one step of a resettlement journey that will persist for the foreseeable future.

She wanted to make sure those she was helping knew that. 

"When I spoke to the first group of players to fly out of Afghanistan, they started crying because they were so happy." Popal said. "But I said to them, this is not yet the time to cry. Once we reach a calm, safe place, then we can cry. We will talk about our pain then."