Shortly before 4am on Thursday morning, a private chartered plane landed on a freezing runway in London. On board were 130 exhausted, nervous but extremely relieved female footballers and their families, whose dramatic journey to Britain from Afghanistan began more than four months ago before Kabul fell to the Taliban and triggered an exodus.
After months of hiding, political negotiations, hectic calls and WhatsApp messages, the help of a reality TV star – and the heroic efforts of a certain woman, Khalida Popal – the Afghan youth football team finally landed on British soil with the promise of a new future with Leeds United.
The group, which includes 35 teenage players and their relatives, had been in Pakistan on temporary visas, but on Thursday they were accepted in the UK after intense quarrels.
Popal, the former captain of the national women’s soccer team, has now played a fundamental role in at least three evacuations of Afghan Afghan soccer players. She called Thursday a “day of great joy.”
“Afghan women’s football was built on activism – using the power of our voices and the power of our sports platform for women’s empowerment and justice beyond sport,” she said in a statement.
“This team has been through a lot and has sacrificed many victims on their journey to freedom. Since August, they have been displaced from their homes and have been desperately looking forward to the freedoms and fundamental human rights that we often take for granted. ”
The Afghan women’s national team was evacuated from Kabul to Australia in August after the country fell to the Taliban, while the youth football team was granted asylum in Portugal. But the youth development team, which trains girls from underprivileged backgrounds, was stranded after attempts to evacuate them to Doha failed when they were denied access to Kabul airport amid a terrorist threat.
Terrified, they went into hiding before crossing the border into Pakistan on temporary visas. There were quarrels, diplomacy and advocacy, with a secret WhatsApp group of billionaire philanthropists, NGO workers, footballers, FIFA members, advisers and lawyers among others pinging at all times of the night and day as they tried to pull strings. and work all the way to ensure a safe place for the team.
Their flight from Kabul was sponsored by the ROKiT Foundation, which responded to requests from Popal before Leeds United president Andrea Radrizzani and the NGO Football for Peace provided support. The Guardian understands that the plane was chartered by a British-Jewish charity, Tzedek, with some funding provided by reality TV star Kim Kardashian.
As the young women and their families traveled to the UK, they were overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude, said Siu-Anne Marie Gill, CEO of the ROKiT Foundation, with one saying their lives were in debt to those who had helped them. “They were overwhelmed and excited and excited,” she said.
When the plane took off, Radrizzani tweeted a picture of passengers waiting to board a plane and writes: “First chapter written today! When I got a call asking for help rescuing the youth team from Afghanistan, I did not even know where to start. Today they flew to Britain. Proud to be part of the team to make this a reality. Let’s dream one day that they will play for Leeds United FC. “
Gill said helping young women flee, with financial backing from Jonathan Kendrick, chairman and co-founder of the ROKiT group of companies, had completely eroded her for 12 weeks. “It was day in and day out from 2 in the morning to 10 at night,” she said. “This is a modern Schindler’s list. We had to save everyone we could.”
Kashif Siddiqi, a London-born footballer who played for Pakistan’s international team and co-founded Football for Peace, said the last few months had been the most stressful in his life as the NGO helped diplomatic negotiations behind the scenes. .
“It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve been involved in. It’s hard to try to connect in real time with so many governments, so many countries involved, different time zones and different personalities,” he said. ‘We knew their lives were at stake. But I have always said that football can save lives, and I think that is a perfect example of how the power of football can really influence change. “
When the players went into quarantine in the UK, Radrizzani said the club was ready to support the girls and their families in an “inclusive and prosperous” future. “We can’t wait to see them play football again,” he said.