Meet the women who escaped the Taliban and now play for Melbourne Victory

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When the Afghan women’s national soccer team desperately tried to erase all traces of themselves after the Taliban seized Kabul in 2021, they never imagined that one day they would play again as a team on the other side of the world.

The Afghan Women’s Team was formed in 2007 by the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee, with female athletes chosen from schools in the capital, Kabul.

Melbourne Victory Football Club Afghan Women’s Team players Fatima Yousufi (left) and Adiba Ganji. Credit: Penny Stephens

But the players – who became advocates for women’s rights in Afghanistan – were imperilled when the Taliban returned to power and shut down life for girls and women.

Fatima Yousufi, the team’s captain and goalkeeper, buried her trophies and uniform – terrified that her high profile would put her and her family at risk of being arrested or killed.

“As a woman, you can’t go out anymore. You can’t go to the education anymore. You can’t do the sport anymore. For me, it was impossible. For me, it was like a death,” Yousufi, 21, told the Welcoming Australia Symposium, which discussed the challenges and opportunities of migration.

One of Yousufi’s teammates received a threatening message. The co-founder of the Afghan women’s soccer team, Khalida Popal, urged the team to delete social media accounts and burn their uniforms.

Fatima Yousufi, the team’s captain, says she feels a responsibility to the women back in Afghanistan.Credit: Penny Stephens

The team knew very little about Australia. Yousufi had once seen a black and white image of the Opera House. One of the team’s defenders, Adiba Ganji, 18, was familiar with the Australian flag.

But within two weeks, they were among more than 50 female athletes, officials and their families evacuated and brought to Australia after receiving emergency visas from the Australian government.

Their evacuation from Kabul airport followed a campaign by Popal and a group of activists – including former Socceroos captain Craig Foster, former Matildas vice-captain Moya Dodd and human rights lawyer Alison Battison – to get the national team out of Afghanistan.

“When they said Australia is the country that wants you guys, I was thinking: ‘Okay, whatever, just go, be safe and just survive’,” Yousufi says. “I really didn’t know anything about Australia.”

Almost two years after arriving in Australia, the Afghan Women’s Team are playing their second season in the Victoria State League 4. The team is sponsored by A-League club Melbourne Victory – which provides coaching, uniforms and transport – as well as Victoria University.

Yousufi says the team never imagined they would be able to play together again after fleeing the Taliban. “It was an unbelievable thing that happened but right now, we are together,” she says.

“I’m so thankful and grateful for Melbourne Victory. Our team is all feeling like a member of the family. We are so lucky that we have the second chance to be alive and second chance to follow dreams and never give up on our goals.”

Despite their elation at playing soccer again, the players are worried about family and friends left behind in Afghanistan. Yousufi worries her advocacy has put her family at risk.

Adiba Ganji wants to work for the Australian Federal Police one day.Credit: Penny Stephens

“That feeling of guilt will never leave me alone. I was the problem maker for my family,” she says.

Ganji, who is in year 10 and wants to one day work for the Australian Federal Police, says the team members hope to see their remaining family members soon.

“It’s really hard for us to concentrate about everything – education, working and supporting our family. We try, and yeah, it is hard, but we are still trying every day, every single day,” she says.

Yousufi, who studied economics at university in Afghanistan but is now considering a career in sports management, says she feels a responsibility to speak out for women in Afghanistan, who are banned from education and sport.

“They are just in their home, like a prison. Being the voice for those who are voiceless, I have the fortune to share their pain. Those girls who are right now stuck, they don’t have that opportunity.”

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