There was nothing unusual about the way Khalida Popal started out playing football – it all began with a ball. Yet what is remarkable is that she did so in her homeland Afghanistan, a country where it used to be unthinkable for women to participate in sports, especially those that take place in public.
"I remember the day my mother brought me football boots," she told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "We had a very old football at our school, but didn't have any other activities after school. So we would kick the ball around and have fun, but one day we had trouble with some men, who said, 'Football isn't for women. It’s an insult for the game if women play.' That made us stand up for our right to play, stand up for women’s rights and for gender equality."
Such comments highlight that the game was far more than just a pastime for Popal; it became a way for her to fight for women's rights in her homeland and to bring about a change in society. It was certainly no easy task for the 28-year-old, who made history in 2007 by becoming the first captain of the Afghanistan women's national team. She encountered extreme opposition, with her brother and coach both beaten in order to force her to quit. Fearing for her life, she eventually fled Afghanistan alone in April 2011. She escaped to India and applied for asylum to Denmark, where she still lives.
"When I became the head of the women’s football committee my voice was very strong," Popal said, outlining why she left Afghanistan. "I was really enjoying the time and the victory of football becoming more widely known in Afghanistan. We talked and played openly there. That was when I thought, 'We're winning'. But suddenly everything changed when my voice grew and the message got very strong.
"I didn't know that my voice would pose a threat to my life as a leader who wanted to empower women in the country through sports, and to encourage them to join the movement. I faced death threats and had to choose to leave my country. It was a really difficult decision. But I never give up on my dreams, my objective and my fight for women because it's very important. That’s why I'm still involved in women’s football."
Paving the way
Not only has the former defender blazed a trail for the next generation to follow, she has also helped increase the importance of the women's game. "When I started playing in 2004 there were only a few girls, maybe eight to ten, playing football for the first time in the history of the country," Popal said. "Now there are more than two or three thousand women playing in Afghanistan - not only in the capital city but in the surrounding area too." She also revealed that several events are planned in Afghanistan in honour of International Women's Day, although she will be unable to attend them personally.
"I love my country and I love working in my country. But as long as the situation doesn't change, I'll keep working for women’s football in Afghanistan. I'm the programme director of the national team. I coordinate the programmes and organise different events in the country from abroad. That keeps me alive and happy. Even if I'm far away from my country, I'm still connected to it."
Popal has already spoken at the United Nations and at diverse human rights conferences across the globe about her fight for women's rights. She was also among the guest speakers at the FIFA Conference for Equality and Inclusion, which took place at the Home of FIFA on Monday.
"Being at this event at this conference is a great opportunity for me," said the Kabul native. "It's a great platform to send out the message to the authorities, to the people who are the decision makers, to the people who make decisions about improving women's football, the people who empower women in order to increase gender equality. I'm very happy and it was a great opportunity that I could talk directly to the FIFA President and that he was there to hear."
Perhaps her commitment to the cause will soon be rewarded, and her deepest ambition could become a reality. "It's my dream," she explained, "to see the Afghanistan women’s national team play at a World Cup."