Afghanistan Women's National Team to play in Victorian leagues

Courtesy Melbourne Victory

The Afghanistan Women's National Team's return to competitive football has been confirmed after it was officially accepted into Football Victoria's competitions for 2022.

The players were among the scores of sportswomen forced to flee Afghanistan as the Taliban seized control in August 2021, given their position as female athletes put their lives in danger, and frantic efforts from global player's union FIFPRO, human rights campaigners, a number of NGOs and the Australian Government secured them places among nearly 80 people evacuated on a flight from Kabul.

Staying together upon their arrival in Australia and supported by A-Leagues club Melbourne Victory, the team-in-exile has now been earmarked for a place in Football Victoria's State Leagues for the coming season, with talks continuing about which of the federation's seven tiers of women's football will be most appropriate.

The team trained together under the guidance of Football Victoria National Training Centre coach Helen Winterburn and Football Victoria evaluators in early February to help to determine their standard, and they have since been led by members of Victory's football department -- the latter of which hopes the players' improvements after settling in Australia and getting a sustained run of training will be taken into account in their grading.

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"The Afghan Women's National Team have inspired the Australian football community with their incredible courage and resilience through significant adversity," Football Victoria chief executive Kimon Taliadoros told ESPN.

"Football Victoria is so pleased to welcome this inspirational group of women to our Victorian football family, where they can continue their journey together, playing the world game in their new home.

"We look forward to working with the team alongside Melbourne Victory and announcing the 2022 Victorian competition they will be part of shortly."

The team will be a full participant throughout 2022, regardless of which league it plays in, with games counting for points and the team able to be promoted or relegated at the end of the season.

Matters surrounding clearances for a side made up entirely of international players must be finalised, but the belief is that the shared commitment between the federation and Victory to support the team means this won't be an issue.

The group will be supplied with full operational, administrative and coaching support from the A-Leagues giants, and they will wear a custom re-and-white kit that clearly identifies them as Afghanistan's team. Their home ground and the full make-up of their coaching staff throughout the season have not been finalised.

"There are varying skill levels," Victory director of football John Didulica told ESPN.

"Some [of the players] are more top end and some are more participation level.

"So it might be quite a bespoke model where certain sessions are taken by certain coaches, other sessions are taken by Jeff [Victory's A-League Women coach Jeff Hopkins].

"It's a cliche, but football at all levels can be incredibly corrosive at times. But you do it and endure it for moments like this.

"On a personal level, it's incredible. The way that everyone at the club has rallied around the players and embraced them has been phenomenal."

Alongside the likes of Victory's academy director Joe Palatisdes, Hopkins has taken a handful of sessions that have made an immediate impression.

"They're a really great group of women to work with," Hopkins told ESPN. "There's a real good vibe around them.

"I think it's kind of common knowledge what's happened to them and the journey they've had. When you get there and you work with them you just can't believe that, with what they've been through, they can turn up every week with a smile on their face, they can work hard, and you wouldn't know they've got another care in the world.

"It's something that I'm passionate about and I'm more than happy to give up my time to work with them because if I can do something to help them I really want to.

"I'm loving working with them and hopefully I get to do a little or a lot more work with them across the season."

With the encouragement of former captain Khalida Popal -- who helped to establish the team in 2007 before being forced to flee for her safety in 2011, eventually settling in Denmark -- the team sought to remain together upon their arrival in Australia and their safety was secured.

Still viewing themselves as representatives of Afghanistan regardless of the Taliban's views, they hope to use their participation in the Victorian leagues to build a platform that will eventually allow them to lobby FIFA, national federations and governments to allow them to represent their country once again on the international stage.

"All the girls are excited about playing together again," team captain Fatema said in February.

"We wanted to stay together as a team to show that the Taliban can take away our country but not our right to play the sport we love, and will ask for everyone's support so that we can continue our international careers."