When players of the Herat womens’ football team began their career in Afghanistan, little did they know that one day they would play on the fields of the Italian national team.
Now, these women will have the chance to step onto the same grass with the likes of Giorgio Chiellini or Gianluigi Dommarumma in Italy’s Coverciano soccer centre. But for the Afghan all female team, the dream of standing shoulder to shoulder with Europe’s soccer champions comes at an immense personal cost.
After the upheaval that followed the Taliban takeover of their country last August, the three women and their coach fled Herat, leaving behind life as they knew it.
Burning their soccer uniforms
With the Taliban’s swift return to power following the US military withdrawal, the Herat footballers suddenly had a lot to fear: by engaging in a game traditionally associated with men, they defied the group’s strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Today the players, their male coach and some of their family members are among the Afghan refugees who have found a new home in Florence, a haven from the fear and uncertainty now gripping their country.
Like other Afghan women whose life choices went against the inflexible diktats of a male-dominated society, the footballers suddenly dreaded persecution at the hands of the Islamic group.
“For the Taliban, a girl can’t play soccer. We were warned to burn our uniforms to erase any clues of our past,” one of the three Herat footballers told Italian TV.
Although Afghanistan is now far away, she and her teammates — all in their early 20s — still need to be very cautious; pressed by safety concerns, they have opted not to disclose their identities nor show their faces to the media.
In Florence, safety at last
When the Taliban first governed Afghanistan in the late 1990s and before the 2001 US-led invasion, women were forbidden from getting an education and leaving the house unaccompanied, their faces and bodies hidden behind the full-body burqa.
Upon their return, Afghanistan’s new rulers have promised to respect the rights of women and girls but, for now, they have excluded them from their newly formed interim government. Many in the country remain sceptic and openly worry about their lives, a dread that in recent weeks has pushed thousands to attempt a dramatic escape.
The lucky ones who managed to leave Afghanistan can finally shake off those fears, says Dario Nardella, Florence Mayor and Eurocities President: “The girls of the Herat football team are in our city and they’re now safe. Now Florence will offer them new hope.”
The Tuscan city and its metropolitan area currently host 58 Afghan refugees but will welcome another 80 to 90 of them in the near future. “Florence is an open city. It has a long tradition of building bridges and bringing down walls, of hosting people who are struggling. It’s in our DNA,” Nardella remarks.
The mayor says that Florence has an established relationship with Herat and in recent years it was involved in a project for the creation of an urban plan in its city centre; offering refuge to the players and their coach was just a natural choice, he adds.
A lucky escape
For the Afghan footballers, emigrating meant suddenly dropping all the plans they had made for their future . “I had many dreams in Afghanistan, including being involved in politics,” says one of them. But making the painful decision to get away from their country was only the starting point.
A perilous journey along the road that separates Herat from Kabul awaited them, six hundred kilometres dotted with countless Taliban checkpoints that eventually took them to the capital’s airport.
There, under the looming threat of an attack, the soccer players stood for 48 hours, pressed hard against others as desperate as them to escape the country.
Unlike the 169 Afghans and 13 American service members who died at the Kabul airport at the hands of a suicide bomber in late August, the Herat footballers managed to safely board an Italian military flight and eventually arrived in Florence.
Nardella recounts his first moving encounter with the team. “When I saw them step out of the military bus with bags instead of luggage, I was struck by their determination to start all over again, to keep carrying on in spite of the life and loved ones they left in their country.”
Keeping up a legacy of independence
The three women, their coach and some family members are now being cared for by the Italian Catholic charity group Caritas and already have plans to take on an active role in Florence. Up on their agenda: playing professional soccer again.
The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) has already promised them a spot at Italy’s most prestigious venue in Coverciano, the host of Italy’s national soccer team training retreats.
In spite of the turmoil of the past weeks and the pressure of building a new life away from home, returning to the field is paramount for the Afghan footballers, a pledge of allegiance to the gains that Afghan women have made over the past two decades to ensure that they won’t evaporate.
“I feel strong when I play soccer. It helps me to know that a girl can do whatever she wants,” says one of the players.
A lesson in democracy
Florence will be not just their home but their ally, says the city mayor, a place where the Afghan team can continue to fulfill their ambitions.
“We want to go well beyond offering them a place to stay and, rather, we’ll strive to make sure that they’ll find their own role in our society,” says Nardella.
“We’re planning to organise a series of meetings in our schools between the footballers and local students. We want our kids to listen to the Afghan team members’ stories and to learn what it means to fight for your country and for human rights. Students need to know all of this because democracy and freedom can’t be taken for granted,” the mayor adds.
“It’s our duty to nurture their hopes and make sure that the Afghan players can continue to have faith in the West and in Europe. We need to rebuild this trust, and in our own small way we want to offer our contribution,” the president of Eurocities remarks.