Any mention of Afghanistan conjures up visions of Soviet occupation during the 1980s, the Mujahideen resistance with support from the West, the rise of the Taliban beginning from 1991, their control of the country from 1996 until NATO support helped ousted the group in 2001, and ongoing violence and unrest as the Taliban continues their guerrilla war.
Where it comes to the Taliban, of the many infamous activities of the group – and there are many – brutal oppression of women was perhaps the most despicable. As the shackles of the Taliban reign faded, the opportunities available to women began to increase, although not without continued threats.
In this environment of increasing opportunity, the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee formed the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team in 2007. The team played games against the International Security Assistance Force and a couple of small tournaments outside of the country. Since then, the Afghanistan WNT has played off and on, participating in the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship in 2010, 2012 and 2014 (winning one game and reaching the semi-finals in 2012).
From 2011, Hummel became a kit sponsor for the team, a relationship that was renewed in 2015. Hummel has also been involved in the launch of a domestic league for women. Earlier this year, the company unveiled a new kit for Afghanistan, including a kit for women with an integrated hijab for the first time.
With the 2016 SAFF Women’s Championship on the horizon, the national team is beginning a new push ahead of the tournament, hiring a new coaching staff and ramping up training activities.
Last week, Houston Dash goalkeeper Haley Carter was unveiled as the Goalkeeping Coach of the national team, a challenge she was excited to take on. “I think it’s probably the coolest opportunity ever that I’ve gotten to do.”
Carter, a graduate of the Naval Academy who did two tours of duty in Iraq as a United States Marine, is sponsored by Hummel. Through the company, she was able to link up with former Afghanistan women’s national team captain Khalida Popal. When offered the chance to be the Goalkeeping Coach, Carter jumped at it.
Popal’s story has been documented several times, most recently in an outstanding piece by Stephanie Yang. Despite being threatened and forced to leave Afghanistan for fear of her life, Popal remains active in developing women’s soccer in Afghanistan, including helping design the new kits.
In addition to Carter, Afghanistan has hired Kelly Lindsey as Head Coach of the team. Lindsey briefly coached Sky Blue FC in 2009 and is a graduate of Notre Dame, where she played for current Houston Dash Head Coach Randy Waldrum.
“Not only one of the best players that ever played for me, but one of the most competitive players,” Waldrum recently said of Lindsey. “Of all the teams in my last twenty-eight years of coaching, I could probably on my one hand name you the top leaders on teams over the years at all levels; pros, international, college, and Kelly would be right up there at the very top. She has great leadership qualities, she’s great with people, she’s a good coach.”
With Lindsey and Carter on board, the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) is putting one of its strongest pushes to date behind the team. “There’s a lot of money and a lot of awareness and attention being pumped into the Federation and into the woman’s side,” says Carter.
“The Federation in Afghanistan has done a really good job about appointing a woman’s football committee and trying to help drive those resources, and there’s a lot of progressive thinking there around it. We’re getting a lot of support internally and through Hummel. I’ve discussed with West Coast Goalkeeping as well, they’re going to help supply gloves to the goalkeepers. It’s kind of like things are just sort of falling in place.”
A key component of the push is finding players overseas who could qualify to play for Afghanistan under FIFA rules and bringing them in to be a part of the team. “There’s a lot of girls that live in Europe, several of the girls on the team live in Germany, there’s girls here in the US. So it’s kind of cool to get the girls who either were born in Europe, or girls that have left Afghanistan,” says Carter.
Out of a couple of events coming up in Europe, the program is looking to get a delegation to an event in the Netherlands in the beginning of June. “It’s an opportunity for us to kind of get together, plan out our year, and then to scout players to come over to the US for the training camp here in September,” explains Carter of the event.
“The Football Federation in Afghanistan is identifying women that are in Afghanistan that they think are the best players to come over, and then we’re going to try and meet in Europe and identify those and again in the US. So it’s kind of a hodgepodge of efforts, we’ve got Kelly over in Hong Kong, and me here and Khalida over in Europe, so between the different continents, we’re just trying to put something together.”
The team has a busy schedule of events this year, starting with a trip to California in May for an Aria Club event to look at players, the Netherlands event in June, a training camp in Hong Kong or Bahrain in the July/August time frame, a camp in California in early September including games organized by the AFSO, and finally the SAFF South Asian Games in India in September.
Hummel is providing a considerable amount of support including covering the travel for the best players from Europe, Asia and elsewhere to come to the United States. They are covering the kits as well as kit sponsor. However, as often is the case with smaller national teams, especially in the women’s game, there are a number of costs that will be out-of-pocket.
“In the immediate term, we’ve got to raise funds to get our delegation over to Europe for the event for the Netherlands, so we can recruit players and meet and throw our ideas around about the rest of the year. We have a couple of days for our training camp in September that are going to have to cover as well, with lodging, transportation like vans, meal expenses and stuff like that,” says Carter.
In order to raise funds, Carter has set up a Go Fund Me Account called the AFF Women’s National Team Fund. Anyone willing to support the team is encouraged to visit the site and donate by clicking here.
The growth of the national team, coupled with the slow and steady growth of the domestic women’s soccer league presents an opportunity for women to continue to increase their freedom in Afghanistan. The symbolism is strong, women now play in Ghazi Stadium in Kabul on a pitch where they once were publicly flogged for disobeying Taliban rules.
“Girls still have to be careful playing, it’s still a little bit of an outspoken action to do, but it’s growing a little bit. I think there’s more opportunities there,” says Carter, who is postponing her plans to attend law school by one year after she retires from playing for the Dash at the end of this season in order to be a part of this undertaking.
Her husband, who served in Afghanistan and has been in some hairy situations there is supportive, “He’s kind of likened it to beating terrorists with an M-4, and beating terrorists with a soccer ball. It’s a good opportunity, and I think that he being around women athlete’s and being around women’s soccer players, he’s seen how small the world is. The opportunity to make the world a better place, using our network and resources; it’s just there are infinite possibilities out there.”
Donate to the Afghanistan Women’s National Team Fund
Watch the full video of the interview with Haley Carter about taking on a role with Afghanistan: