There are a lot of moving parts that make up a national team, and managing one requires lining up those parts as precisely as possible. Now imagine building a national team from scratch, with few experienced players and even fewer resources – all in the face of open social disapproval.
Former Afghanistan women’s national team captain Khalida Popal doesn’t need to imagine; she was instrumental in such a foundation. In a country still reeling from Taliban control, she was one of several players who laid the groundwork for the birth of the national team, even as loud voices within the community attempted to silence them. Eventually, for her own safety, Popal left Afghanistan, settling with her family in Denmark. From there she continued to assist the national team, building a squad in a country that to this day struggles with the extremist forces that caused her to leave.
Now the team has new staff in place, new players to evaluate, and new fundraising goals. The team’s new head coach is Kelly Lindsey, formerly of the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley. She had a stint as a player with the CyberRays in WUSA and was head coach of Sky Blue FC in 2009 during WPS years, prior to Christie Rampone taking over as player-coach.
Afghanistan’s new goalkeeper coach is Haley Carter, currently a reserve goalkeeper with the Houston Dash and formerly of the United States Marine Corps.
Both are now working with Popal to revitalize Afghanistan’s roster and move the team towards a steadier international calendar, bringing needed playing opportunities beyond their participation in once-yearly regional tournaments.
Many of the problems that forced Popal to leave the country still plague the team. Carter gave an interview to women’s soccer podcast 2 Drunk Fans (full disclosure: that is my podcast, run with my partner Gabby Rosas) in which she said there have been security concerns not just for the players but for her, despite her current residence in the United States.
But that hasn’t stopped her, Lindsey, and Popal from fundraising. Various issues with financing and logistics have kept the team from coming together and prevented them from establishing any sort of rhythm. Now, money raised through their GoFundMe campaign will enable them to travel to evaluate players in several countries; get the team equipped, fed, and lodged; and send them to their next tournament, this summer’s South Asian Football Federation championship.
The new coaching staff wants to expand the player pool to a roster of 25, bolstering their numbers by recruiting from the US and Europe. Many Afghan families left the country for various reasons, including as refugees from the Taliban, and settled in places like Denmark, where Popal currently lives. Oftentimes they and their children seek to reconnect with their homeland; in soccer that’s possible through FIFA rules which allow players to represent a country if their parents or grandparents were born in that country. They’re looking inside Afghanistan for players too, and they’ve formed a Women’s Football Committee that is soliciting playing resumes and highlight reels.
Afghanistan’s current starting goalkeeper is Wida Zemarai, who currently plays for Sjömarkens IF in one of Sweden’s lower leagues. She and her family lived in Uzbekistan for eight years before ultimately moving to Sweden when she was 13. “I was only seven years old when I started playing football with my brothers in the street in Uzbekistan,” she said by email. “There was no real football team there, and I used to play ball with the guys…” When Zemarai began playing with a club on the recommendation of her sports teacher, she had not even realized there were such teams in Sweden.
Zemarai’s family encouraged her to play and attended her youth games. Not everyone was so accepting. “I had some Afghan friends who used to say that football is not for girls,” she said, “And especially not for Afghan girls. I usually argue and tell them why can not Afghan girls play if all the other girls can do it?”
The Afghanistan women’s national team officially came into existence as a FIFA-ranked team in 2007, but Zemarai was not aware the team existed until 2014. She began playing for them while refining her skills in Sweden. “I have played in different Swedish teams and also had the chance to travel abroad and play for foreign clubs,” she said. “Last year I was invited to play one of the Maldives’ largest futsal tournament where we came 4th in the tournament.”
Carter is just starting her evaluation of the team’s players, as well as trying to look at more potentials on her recruiting trips, but she calls Zemarai and the other Afghan players playing in Europe “technical.”
“[Wida] has some really decent size and athleticism and is actually quite good with her feet, very technical,” Carter said via email. “I think that we can always improve fitness base and speed over the long term. That’s an area where things tend to differ between American and European footballers. We spend quite a bit of time doing speed and agility and working out in the weight room while players elsewhere really spend a lot of time playing and on the ball. I’d like to see if we can balance both.”
For Zemarai specifically, Carter has already worked out a game plan. “In the short term, it’s a matter of getting her some quality training time and working together to tie in our back line. So much of what we do as goalkeepers involves how we communicate and read our own defenders. I’m confident the more time we can get the team together, Wida is going to excel in this area.”
So far, the whole team hasn’t had a chance to practice together. According to their Go Fund Me (Kobe Bryant just landed a cool $1000 donation on them), coaching staff will call in players for a mini-camp in Europe this summer, narrow down their selections, then go into another camp prior to a tournament in the United States in September. From these camps they hope to form a player pool which will go to a training camp in Hong Kong and compete in the South Asian Games in the Maldives at the end of the year.
In the meantime, Carter, Lindsey, and Popal are hustling for donations and social media attention while they coordinate across time zones and countries with the Afghanistan Football Federation and the players already in the pool. That means getting the word out on Twitter (with mentions from Bryant, Mia Hamm, and Julie Foudy, among others) and emailing every contact they have in the soccer world to help hype the team and their mission.
— Julie Foudy (@JulieFoudy) May 6, 2016
Carter is positive about the team’s progress so far. “These girls are so passionate and about playing for and representing their country,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they live in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Iran, Afghanistan, or the U.S. The opportunity to play for Afghanistan means everything to them … the level of passion is unlike anything I’ve seen. They are literally willing to risk their lives to represent women and their heritage and country on the football pitch.”
Zemarai was slightly more sanguine, but no less invested. “We have a lot to develop [when it comes to the] national team in terms of the system, rules, development of players and other small stuff,” she said. “We can succeed in building a strong team through good leadership, good conditions, to trust each other and the Afghan people`s encouragement.”
At the end of her email, Zemarai included a sentiment that knows no borders and defines every team, large or small: the desire to win. “The challenge may be that we will start everything again from the beginning with Kelly and Haley. Personally, I will do everything to manage to win a title with the national team. This has always been my dream and I am confident that together with our new coaches, we will succeed in this.”
“Hopefully we will win a title soon, then the whole nation will be proud of us and I’m waiting for that day.”