Soccer officials attempt to evacuate Afghanistan players; women told to burn uniforms

FIFPRO, the world soccer players' union, is working with governments to try and evacuate players from Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control last weekend. There is concern for the safety of the nation's women's soccer players, who by simply being on the team have spoken in support of women's rights over the past decade-plus.

“As a champion of activists, we are greatly concerned about those athletes who have, for many years, been outspoken advocates for improved human rights in the country,” FIFPRO said in a Twitter thread on Friday. “Over the past few days, FIFPRO has been liaising with governments to establish an evacuation plan for athletes at risk. Central to this rescue effort, is the ambition to bring as many people to safety as possible.”

The thread by FIFPRO began with condolences for Zaki Anwari, a 17-year-old member of Afghanistan's youth boys national team. He was one of several who died in the chaos that broke out at Kabul airport on Monday after the Taliban took control. Afghans were rushing boarding gates and runways in an attempt to leave the country. Anwari and another individual climbed onto wings of the departing military plane and died falling from it. 

FIFA called the situation "unstable and very worrying," per the Associated Press, and said it has been in contact with the Afghanistan Football Federation to receive updates. 

"We are supporting them through this difficult time," FIFA said, via the AP.

Female footballers concerned about safety 

Khalida Popal, who founded the Afghan women's football league in 2007, urged players on Thursday to delete social media and "even I'm telling them to burn down or get rid of your national team uniform," she told the AP. She has advised them to flee their homes and leave neighbors who know that they are pioneering players. Popal received death threats in 2011 and fled to Denmark.

The Athletic's Katie Whyatt detailed how those around Afghan women's soccer have had to quickly change from being activists to pretending they had never heard the word. Haley Carter, a former assistant coach, told The Athletic she is begging people to stop sharing photos of players to social media and has had her mother rid the house of any proof she played sport, received an award or traveled to the U.S.

“We helped build something a couple of years ago to start a dream. That’s now turned into a nightmare,” Afghanistan captain Shabnam Mobarez told The Athletic. "People in Afghanistan can die because they played such a beautiful sport as soccer. We wanted to use soccer as a tool to educate and empower women. Now, it’s potentially getting them killed."

The Taliban has vowed to respect women's rights and those who fought for them, but the regime is known to be strict and oppressive toward women. Those who study the area and culture say there's no chance the Taliban will improve its approach toward women's rights. 

In the late 1990s, women were largely confined to homes, banned from watching TV or listening to music and were publicly executed if deemed necessary. Playing soccer wasn't even close to being a possibility for women then. 

After the United States drove the Taliban from power, women began to fight for their rights, including in sport. The national team was formed in 2007 and played its first international match in 2010. It is currently ranked No. 152 in the world and made it as high as 106 out of 168 nations. 

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