A number of Afghanistan women’s football team players evacuated to UK after the Taliban took control of the country ‘hadn’t even played the sport’, an investigation has claimed.
Some 35 members of the women’s national team were flown to safety in the UK along with their families – 130 people in total – from Pakistan in November 2021.
The women – aged between 13 and 19 at the time – were granted visas by the UK Home Office as they were considered to be at increased risk from the Taliban as they played a sport deemed un-Islamic by the insurgent group.
But an investigation believes around a third of the 35 women granted asylum had never actually played for the team.
Speaking to former players, coaches, and officials for the Afghan women’s team, the investigation identified 13 individuals who it claimed were not part of the team.
Afghan female football players from Afghan team celebrate with the trophy after their women’s football tournament final match in December 2013
Players of Afghanistan national women football team attend to a training session at Odivelas, outskirts of Lisbon, September 2021
Conducting its investigation, the BBC’s Newsnight said it has been able to access the full list of the women’s footballers who were transported to the UK and granted asylum.
Validating the list, they said the names that were given to the Home Office were genuine. But identifying them as football players for either the national team or local clubs was false.
Najibullah Nowroozi, coach of the Herat Youth Team – where most of the players claimed to be registered – said a number of players on the list had never played football.
He told Newsnight’s investigation: ‘I have seen people in the list who have not even worn a football strip in Herat.’
The false claims by some of the women have sparked fury for many back home in Afghanistan.
Some of the women who did play for the national team were not able to make their way to the UK and are now living in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
One anonymous player still in the country told Newsnight: ‘The Taliban have banned sports for women and girls.
‘We are left behind in Afghanistan with no future. It just makes me feel very neglected and very sad because we are the real players and not some of those that got evacuated.’
Sabriah Nawrouzi, the former captain of the Herat Youth Team, told the investigation she met some of the women who claimed to be part of the team for the very first time at a hotel as they awaited a flight to the UK.
Afghan footballers take part in a friendly football match against Qatar women’s national team at the Khalifa International Stadium in November 2021
Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghan women’s national football team, speaks during the FIFA Annual Conference for Equality & Inclusion in March 2017
A charity worker who helped organise the flight to the UK claimed the Home Office failed to check the identity of the women. She said they relied on the names that one player Khalida Popal provided them.
The charity worker, Siu Anne Gill from the Rokit Foundation, told Newsnight that Ms Popal had been personally including more and more names and when they asked her if some of the women were definitely footballers, she confirmed they were.
Ms Popal denied any accusation that she knowingly included women who were not footballers. She told Newsnight in a statement: ‘I categorically deny the allegations directed at me. I have repeatedly provided extensive evidence and explanations about why any suggestion that I had any formal role in verification and/or knowingly misled anyone about the identities of those evacuated is wrong.’
A spokesperson for the Home Office told Newsnight: ‘We worked with a number of organisations who identified and referred the group to us, undertaking security checks as part of the process.
‘Should there be evidence that the information provided was incorrect, the Home Office will investigate.’
The Mail On Sunday’s conducted its own investigation in December 2021 that found members of the national team squad were left behind to make way for friends of senior players.
The investigation found that much of the criticism has been levelled at Ms Popal.
At the time, Arezo Rahimi, head of women’s football at the Afghan Football Association, said: ‘The majority of the people on Ms Popal’s list are not players and their families at all. Most players from the development team are still trapped in Afghanistan – they are living in fear and have no hope of getting out.’
Ms Popal also denied any wrongdoing in December 2021 and said her accusers were jealous because they were unable to evacuate their own families.