Afghan-born footballer Nadia Nadim fled her country at the age of twelveBDZ Sports/Wikimedia Commons

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan this year has had dramatic effects on life in the country, and the impact on sports is no exception. During the regime’s previous rule between 1996 and 2001, women were not allowed to take part in sports and those who did were punished severely. Despite the new regime stating they will be more moderate, a ban on women’s sports has already been announced.

Even after the initial fall of the Taliban at the turn of the century, it took nearly a decade for the women’s national football team to play its first official game, with players since being subjected to abuse and threats by members of what remains a very conservative society. Chief amongst harassers was former Afghan Football Association President Keramuudin Karim, who received a lifetime ban from the sport back in 2018. All of this, on top of the constant possibility of the Taliban regaining power, meant that simply by playing football and wider sports, women across Afghanistan were risking their safety and making a powerful statement to those who would have preferred their rights to be restricted.

“The bottom line is that the world has witnessed a heartbreaking exodus of Afghan women in sports”

Fast-forward to the present, many female athletes, including footballers, have fortunately been evacuated to Australia, while girls in the youth teams have also made it across the border into Pakistan, from where they’ve gone on to be granted asylum in both Portugal and the United Kingdom. Qatar’s government, working alongside FIFA, was last month (14/10) able to rescue around 100 football players to Doha. However, their prospects of competing remain unclear and, ultimately, unlikely.

In the face of adversity, the on-field performances of sportspeople are understandably affected by fear and anxiety. One of the most famous moments from the 1974 World Cup was Zaire player Mwepu Ilunga kicking the ball away after it was placed for a Brazilian free kick. A common narrative at the time was that Zaire’s squad did not know the rules of football, when in reality the nation’s dictator had informed them that they would not be allowed to return to the country if they suffered a defeat heavier than 3-0. This came in response to the players’ indifferent performance in their prior 9-0 loss to Yugoslavia, after being informed that they wouldn’t see a single penny of their qualification bonus from FIFA. The score stood at 2-0 to Brazil when the incident occurred, and Ilunga later explained it was an act of protest which he had hoped would get him sent off.

“In the face of adversity, the on-field performances of sportspeople are understandably affected by fear and anxiety”

But in other cases, adversity can strike up extra motivation for athletes. In 1936, the USA’s Jesse Owens defied the racist ideology of the Nazi regime to take home four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics and dismiss the concept of Aryan superiority. Despite hostility from all fronts, he was able to shut out the noise and put in a superhuman performance to set six world records in the space of just one hour.

One inspiring athlete who rose above Afghanistan’s adversity is Nadia Nadim, who fled the country with her family following her father’s murder at the hands of the Taliban in 2000. Now playing as a professional footballer for Racing Louisville FC in the USA and Denmark’s national team, Nadim describes herself as “the picture of everything the Taliban don’t want their women to be”.

​​Although it seems there is little international sporting bodies can do to help the situation, the best way to apply immediate pressure may be to disallow Afghan teams from competing entirely. For instance, the International Cricket Council (ICC) does not usually permit teams to obtain full membership, which includes the right to play in test matches, without having a women’s side. The ICC, however, is yet to take action, along with any other global organisation.


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But with the Taliban regime unlikely to budge even if such measures are applied, there is perhaps something to be said for an outright ban being counterproductive. Qatar offers an example of a nation that has, albeit slowly, been increasing the participation of women in sport since sending no female athletes to the 2008 Olympics.

The poignant reality, however, is that Taliban rule is still a very fresh wound, which means healing will be slow regardless of external action. Hopefully, those who made it overseas can gradually begin to piece back together their lives and sporting careers, but the bottom line is that the world has witnessed a heartbreaking exodus of Afghan women in sports.