“Football saved them”
After helping evacuate over 300 youth national team players and their families, Afghanistan’s captain joins Common Goal
Before the Taliban took over, Afghanistan’s national team captain Farkhunda Muhtaj, was jumping ahead in her career. The then 23-year-old played for the Canadian football team Vaughan Azzuri, coached football at York University, where she used to play and study, helped run the non-profit she co-founded, and taught at a high school in Ontario, Canada – the province she grew up in.
But everything changed last August.
“It didn't even take a moment for me to act,” says Farkhunda, referring to the call she got from the Afghan Football Federation (AFF) on August 19, 2021.
At the time, the midfielder was helping prepare her Afghan side for the Asian Cup qualifiers in September.
“The conversation immediately went from preparing for this tournament to the AFF calling me and asking me: ‘Can you help evacuate Afghanistan national team players?,” she explains.
Farkhunda was told, “Their lives are at risk. If anyone knows they're footballers, they’ll be threatened – literally just for playing football. They have no future here.”
Without hesitation, she committed to doing everything she could to evacuate players from the U-15, U-17, U-19 teams and their families.
Prior to Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban, Farkhunda led her team on and off the pitch. She constantly worked with the AFF on increasing gender equity and women’s rights and thinks her activism, combined with her dual Afghan-Canadian citizenship, prompted the federation to reach out despite her age and inexperience in finding asylum for a large group. Canada promised to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees at the time.
“I was in shock when they asked for my help,” comments Farkhunda.
“At this point, I didn't even know how to support them.
“I never said I was a hero or anything. But when my people are in a difficult situation and especially the national team, the flag that I represent, I'm going to do whatever I can."
"Maybe I don't have all the answers right away, but I could find them.”
She jumped into WhatsApp groups with all the players and was searching for humanitarian lawyers and organisations when she got a call from Katayoun Khosrowyar, Iran’s former head coach who was concerned for the girls’ safety and wanted to help.
The pair started gathering players’ documents, looking for any way to help get them out.
“Unfortunately, I didn't get the answers that I was looking for from Canada,” states Farkhunda.
That’s when Katayoun’s sister put her in touch with U.S. government officials.
Now working with them, humanitarians, Katayoun Khosrowyar, and Afghanistan’s former goalkeeper Wida Zemarai, Farkhunda went straight to work. But nothing went as planned.
“It was chaotic at the beginning,” remembers Farkhunda.
“Everyone was calling and sharing my phone number with their friends and their relatives. At this point you had like half of Afghanistan calling me.”
Farkhunda didn’t know who was on the youth teams. Female athletes were not highly publicised figures so she had players send her their FIFA ID cards and anything that proved their player status.
It took a week to arrange the group. The situation at the Kabul airport was only worsening day by day so Farkhunda and her team came up with a plan.
Farkhunda separated the group of 200 into smaller group chats of around 25 girls. These smaller groups would then report to their family members.
She sent each group a coordinate, a place like a gas station or high school where the plan was for Marines or U.S. government officials from within the airport to bus them into Hamid Karzai airport through a secret gate.
However, as Farkhunda describes, “the security situation at the airport was horrific.” No one was able to exit Hamid Karzai.
The girls at times waited days without food or water, left wondering what was going to happen as they felt their hopes dwindle.
“I'm not providing them with details. They're just trusting me blindly because I couldn't jeopardise the mission,” comments Afghanistan’s captain.
Farkhunda gathered information from the players on the ground to share with U.S intelligence officers and helped devise new plans.
“It's really crazy – it’s like a movie,” she says.
The next day, the Taliban
In an attempt to evade them and keep the girls safe, the new plan was to send the groups to four or five different locations throughout the day.
Finally, the group was set to evacuate through the Eagle Base, the secret base nearby the airport.
“They were literally steps away from getting in,” explains Farkhunda.
Despite having a flight ready to go for them, the group could not make it into the airport and get out of the country as marines were killed.
“Let's just say until the August 31 deadline, our girls and their families went through hell,” notes Farkhunda.
During the whole evacuation, Farkhunda was based in Ontario – 8.5 hours behind Kabul, making sleep nearly non-existent for her.
“The political landscape kept evolving. So, you develop a plan, but by the time you want to execute it, the situation is different,” continues Farkhunda.
After trying a dozen times through Kabul’s airport, Farkhunda’s team changed tactics and worked on getting the group to Mazar-I-Sharif, a city in Northern Afghanistan.
They heard it was easier to evacuate from there.
But as Farkhunda states, “things don't go as planned in a situation like that.”
The 8-10 hours bus ride turned into the group spending 24 hours on the road without food and water. It became apparent there was no way out through the airport that day.
On the fly, they arranged safe houses to shelter the group.
The couple of days planned in the safe house turned into 20. Although the group had sufficient food and water and there was enough space for everyone to sleep, Farkhunda remembers this time as the most challenging part of the journey.
She barely slept and missed her grandfather’s funeral as the evacuation was all-consuming. It was particularly challenging for the players too.
“Their mental health was deteriorating,” Farkhunda elaborates.
Due to limited space on flights and the immense difficulty of evacuating, players had to leave many loved ones behind. Each player was only allowed to bring three people with them; Farkhunda reckons the average Afghan family size is eight.
On September 8, while the group was in the safehouse and over a week after the August 31 evacuation deadline, the Taliban banned girls from playing sports.
Players began calling Farkhunda in tears, fearfully wondering what was going to happen with their future, asking if they’d ever be able to play football again.
To help lift their spirits, Farkhunda ran yoga sessions over zoom, created football challenges, asked them about their dreams and gave them prompts to reflect on positive memories of the national team and Afghanistan.
“That's when I got to know them on a greater scale as individuals,” she says.
During the whole escape, Farkhunda took it upon herself to keep everyone as calm as possible.
She didn’t tell U.S. officials, “how crazy and overwhelming it was.”
People were fainting and hospitalised – sometimes the Taliban would question the group.
“Afterwards, nothing happened,” she says.
“But if I told them all of that, they would have been shocked and panicked.”
Similarly, she kept some information about the group’s plan to herself.
“Intelligence officers would tell me to move the girls quickly from a location, ‘there’s a suicide bomber next to them.’
“But I couldn’t say that, hearing that you’re just going to faint on the spot.”
After 20 days at the safe house, good news came. Portugal granted the group asylum and they were third on the chartered-flight list – the only way to leave Afghanistan at that point.
The first flight made it out. But the second never took off. Farkhunda and her team could feel their plan slip away.
“Finally, after being awake for over a month, US government officials told me, ‘Go to bed. Nothing’s happening today,’” remembers Farkhunda.
In the middle of the night, she gets the call. It was actually 10-15 calls from Nic McKinley, the former U.S. intelligence officer she was working with.
“Wake up,” Nic tells Farkhunda. “We’re moving.”
Disoriented and confused, it was 1 AM in Canada, she is informed of everything she has to do in three hours – arrange buses from the safe house, send everyone’s documents, get the group into the airport...
“If we didn't capitalise in three hours our chance was over,” says Farkhunda.
“It was a huge nightmare. My heart was racing.”
People tried to bring additional family members who hadn’t been granted asylum, a scenario which could cause the flight to turn around. Eventually, everyone who’d been vetted made it through the gates when another challenge fell on Farkhunda’s plate.
Most of the players had passports and if you didn’t, you could travel with a Tazkira – Afghanistan's national ID card. But two people had neither.
Farkhunda recalls, “begging and pleading” with the airline who was on the phone communicating and negotiating with the Taliban.
She pulled it off – she got them through.
It was only when the group was handed their boarding pass and saw Lisbon in bold letters that they found out where their new lives would begin.
As the flight, filled with 80 people, took off on September 19, the girls told Farkhunda, “we were all screaming and yelling, ‘we’re free.’”
For Farkhunda, it was, “an amazing moment.”
“When the girls lost faith, their bravery and resilience would kick back in.”
While this felt like a win for Farkhunda, her efforts weren’t over.
She flew to Portugal to be with them for four days. But after getting there, she was asked to stay and help support their resettlement. She ended up staying months.
But not everyone made it to Portugal.
After the group’s unsuccessful attempts in Kabul, many players decided not to take the long bus ride up north.
“They thanked me,” says Farkhunda.
“But they thought their future was just destined to be in Afghanistan.”
On November 16, 2021, a day after her 24th birthday, Farkhunda helped secure another chartered flight. On board to Portugal were 223 people – 150 of them were national team players and their families. The other 73 that Farkhunda’s team helped evacuate were Afghans that worked with NATO and Portugal.
Two players Farkhunda tried to help onto the November flight were conned into a fake Canadian asylum. They have not escaped yet.
Afghanistan’s national team captain continues to tirelessly fight for them and all the female athletes left behind.
Fast forward nearly a year from their escape, all the girls play football on their municipal teams in Portugal and the journey to Europe changed many family members’ mindsets.
Even before the Taliban took over, Farkhunda says girls faced challenges for playing football.
“Competing in sport was defying odds.”
Many players’ parents did not support them in Afghanistan. They would sneak out windows and through their backyards to go to practice.
“It's ironic,” says Farkhunda.
“All those families that were not supportive of their young daughters playing football, well football is what saved them and gave them a new beginning.”
Now, fathers and mothers enjoy going to their daughters’ training sessions and Farkhunda says they see their daughters as, “brave” for playing in Afghanistan and are proud.
Every few months Farkhunda flies to Portugal to coach the girls on their new team Ayenda – Farsi for future. Since the girls now are located throughout Portugal, these games she arranges are the only time they have together.
Afghanistan’s captain works tirelessly every day to restart a sustainable programme for the national teams and believes she has a duty to use her platform as a footballer to support marginalised communities and less fortunate individuals in any way possible.
Inspired by Juan Mata and Jürgen Griesbeck, two of Common Goal’s Co-founders, she decided to take the 1% pledge and join the movement in August 2022.
Her 1% doesn’t go towards gender equality — she realises she’s already playing an active role there.
For Farkhunda, joining Common Goal means tackling an issue she wants to be more involved in.
She’s pledging to the Anti-Racist Project.
Growing up in Canada she saw her sister get kicked off the pitch for wearing a hijab, something which Farkhunda says, “shattered her confidence. She still doesn’t enjoy football the way she used to.
“I don’t want anyone to go through that.
“We always have campaigns of respect in sport or say no to racism. Great well, what does that really mean? We have to educate not only our football clubs and our footballers but also the community, the fans, and all the stakeholders that are involved.
“Everyone deserves to be valued in sport regardless of what your race class, gender, or religion is.
“This is a sport for everyone.”