Out with the old Bastan football club jerseys, in with the new grey and black shirts; the footballers step onto the field one cold January evening.
Unlike many of their peers, for Fatima, Susan and Maryam, changing jerseys means much more than just switching teams: the Lebowski football club that they just joined in Florence is a long way from Herat and Bastan…
After leaving Afghanistan last summer on the same crowded planes as US troops and other desperate civilians, the three footballers have now landed a new role in Italy’s footballing scene.
The Afghan women are the latest additions to the women’s team of club ‘Centro Storico Lebowski’ in Florence and will compete in the top regional amateur league. They will train on the same pitch as premier league Spanish player Borja Valero, now part of Lebowski’s men’s team.
As soon as the announcement came out, tv cameras began to roll at the club’s training pitch.
“I’m very happy to be starting playing football again,” Maryam told Italy’s Corriere della Sera tv while speaking in Italian.
Last week’s training was the first public sighting of the footballers since their arrival in Florence in 2021, a trip facilitated by humanitarian ngo Cospe, the city of Florence and local civil society. In the Tuscan city, Catholic charity Caritas offered Susan, Maryam and Fatima their first temporary home.
Undoing a tight corset
The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in August imposed a dramatic twist on the three womens’ lives. With the Taliban back in power, the footballers’ dream to play a game traditionally associated with men could suddenly only be pursued in a field some 5,000 kilometres away from home.
If they wanted to continue to ‘bend it like Beckham’ – to paraphrase a well-known movie -, Fatima, Susan and Maryam had no other choice but to untie the suffocating corset of life under the Islamic group.
Not that things in Herat were idyllic before. Even with Western-backed governments still in power, Afghan society was still intent on making a woman footballer’s life very hard, the women recounted.
“In Afghanistan we played football from one o’clock to three o’clock in 40 degrees heat, because in the morning and in the evening the playground is for men, not for women,” Susan told Italian media.
“Female football players were forced to train at dawn in order not to be easily seen. They received threats and in 2016 they turned to Cospe’s counselling centre in Herat,” Francesca Pieraccini, Cospe’s General-Director remarks, seconding Susan’s account.
The footballers’ relationship with Cospe proved instrumental to their successful escape from Afghanistan. An additional push came from the city of Florence that threw its political weight behind the womens’ cause, facilitating their move to Italy as well of that of their coach, Najibullah.
“Make the most of refugees’ skills”
For several years, Florence had been involved in an urban planning project in Herat, so welcoming the footballers to Florence was the natural choice, said Dario Nardella, the Mayor of Florence and President of Eurocities.
Yet, simply offering a roof over refugees’ head is not enough, Nardella remarked. “We need to embrace new models of social inclusion that make the most of refugees’ skills, talents and resources in a mutually beneficial exchange,” the mayor explained.
Susan, Fatima and Maryam’s recruitment for Lebowski is a step in that direction.
The footballers – who play as strikers and in defence – will have the first chance to show off their talent on 13 February when Lebowski faces fellow Tuscan team Rufina.
“More than a technical experience for the women, I would like this to be an experience that fosters their integration into our club and, in general, our society,” said their coach Andrea Serrau. “I hope we can help them to grow in all respects,” the trainer added.
Top sport federations have been fostering Susan, Maryam and Fatima’s transition to Italy’s football scene; and their inspiring life stories gained them the endorsement of high profile faces such as Sara Gama, captain of the Italian women’s national football team.
“We are people, sportspeople, athletes, and this is why we support those who share our passion but simply have little chance to fulfil it. As football players – and most of all as people – we stand by Afghan women at this difficult time,” said Gama.
As the three Afghan football players scored in Florence, Afghan women activists gathered in Brussels from 1 – 2 February at the EU-sponsored Afghan Women Day to raise awareness about the plight of their fellow countrywomen.
Seven months after the United States’ withdrawal, Afghanistan has plunged into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis. Over half of the population struggles with extreme hunger and the Taliban are imposing strict limits on women, including their ability to move freely and to receive an education.