Airlifted to safety from the Taliban’s clutches – but is this Afghan girls’ football squad all that it seems? Officials claim real team members were left in Kabul to make space for senior players’ friends
- Afghan girls’ football team that arrived in Britain last month hailed as success
- 35-member squad, aged 13 to 19, had escaped Kabul, and arrived in November
- Figures said some players ‘were left behind’ to make room for senior pros friends
When a plane touched down in Britain last month carrying an Afghan girls’ football team that had escaped from the Taliban, the world hailed a humanitarian success.
It was reported that the teenagers – the youth development squad – and their families would now enjoy a new life, partly thanks to US reality TV star Kim Kardashian who had paid for the flight.
But The Mail on Sunday has learnt that the mercy mission has been soured by a bitter war of words, with senior figures in Afghan football claiming that members of the squad were left behind to make way for friends of senior players.
Much of the criticism has been levelled at former national team captain Khalida Popal, who arranged places on the flight.
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.’
But Ms Popal denied any wrongdoing and said her accusers were jealous because they were unable to evacuate their own families.
On arrival in Britain, sources claimed there were ‘around 25’ players from the Afghan women’s development squad (pictured) on board, adding that the definition of a ‘youth’ squad in Afghanistan includes people as old as 23
Much of the criticism has been levelled at former national team captain Khalida Popal (pictured left) who arranged places on the flight
The BBC reported in October that the 35-member squad, aged 13 to 19, had escaped Kabul, and on November 18 they arrived in the UK with their families.
On arrival in Britain, Ms Popal said that ‘around 25’ players were on board, adding that the definition of a ‘youth’ squad in Afghanistan includes people as old as 23.
However, the list she prepared includes two basketball players and even a 32-year-old footballer.
Ms Rahimi and three former players have analysed the flight list but could identify only 15 footballers among the 132 people on board.
A separate list produced by Ms Rahimi shows that 28 eligible players, aged between 11 and 18, are still in Afghanistan.
Shamila Kohestani, a former captain of the Afghan women’s national football team, said: ‘These athletes have risked their lives to play a game they love, and now their lives are at risk again.
‘But nobody is helping them, while other people were evacuated who are not football players.
‘I’m not against these people and I want everybody who wants to leave Afghanistan to be able to do so, but we have actual players left behind who are at risk.’
Analysis of the flight list shows only 15 footballers among the 132 people on board, including two basketball players and even a 32-year-old footballer. Pictured: The Afghan national women’s football team train in Lisbon on September 30, 2021
Football For Peace, a humanitarian organisation, had been poised to support the players.
‘This news throws those plans into disarray,’ said spokesman Richard Hillgrove.
‘We became concerned when our lawyers discovered a tweet from Shamila Kohestani stating that the majority of the so-called team were not in fact footballers.’
Last night a Home Office spokesman said: ‘We worked with a number of organisations who identified that group.
‘Should evidence arise that the information provided was incorrect, the Home Office will investigate.’
Ms Popal said: ‘I would like to reiterate the fact that I have absolutely no family connection with any of the football players that arrived in the UK and these allegations are baseless.’
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