Sports

The Keeper

One day in August, Fati was working inside the women’s soccer department of the Afghanistan Football Federation when an employee from the president’s office burst in, shouting that the Taliban were closing in on Kabul. Gather every document they could find, he said, and put the paperwork in a pile. They needed to destroy anything the Taliban could use to target female athletes.

“Hurry!” the man said. “We’re going to burn everything.”

Fati said she and a half-dozen other female workers began opening drawers, grabbing all the papers they could, sometimes stacking them to their chins as they carried them away.

Registration forms. Girls’ photos. Uniform order forms. Travel documents. The entire history of the women’s national team program, which began in 2007, soon lay in an unruly heap.

When Fati and her co-workers were done, they stopped to take a breath. It dawned on them: Their lives were really in danger.

Before leaving, Fati grabbed some passports and ID cards that players had left behind and slid them into her backpack. She knew those girls would be stranded in Afghanistan without them.

Three days later, Fati was headed to a final soccer practice for her local club when her phone began sounding off. Frantic messages were popping into the team’s group chat.

“Go home, training is canceled.”

“Don’t go outside, girls.”

Bahara, her former high school classmate who became a defender on the national team, shared a video she had made of the Taliban arriving in one of Kabul’s squares. She had been on her way from dental school when she saw trucks flying white Taliban flags, with soldiers honking horns and shooting guns.

“It’s real, girls,” Bahara wrote in Dari, the players’ native language. “They’re here.”

The city became almost unlivable, especially for women.

Stores and schools closed. Women shut themselves in their homes. The Taliban roamed the streets with paint cans to cover any evidence of shops like beauty salons.

Every day on Facebook, Fati read about killings and more killings. It was impossible to know what was true. Social media posts showed bloody images stamped 24 hours ago. And then one hour ago. And then one minute ago.

Fati and her teammates knew they needed to leave Afghanistan.

“Just be united and let’s see how we can get out of here and find a way,” Fati said in a text to her team. “Inshallah, there will be a way.”

One evening, the team received a text from a veteran player named Nilab. She was a team captain known for being outspoken about women’s rights.

She had received an anonymous text: Somehow if we see you, we will capture you and tie you up like a dog and we will not release you. We will kill you.

Nilab warned the group: Girls, you know they are going to kill the athletes. They will kill them and hang them from the goal in the Olympic Stadium, just like the Taliban did with people before.

Fati, who was at home, felt a chill go through her body as her family slept in the adjacent room. Nilab sounded scared. And Nilab, who several times had been abducted and beaten by militants who tried to silence her, was never scared.

Looking for help, Nilab tried to reach leaders of the Afghan Football Federation and FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, but they didn’t respond.

At last, a breakthrough. Perhaps the team’s only hope.

Nilab received a text from Khalida Popal, a former captain of the Afghan women’s national team who had fled the country because of death threats prompted by her activism. In 2018, she had exposed a sexual abuse scandal involving Afghan soccer officials who were molesting members of the senior national team, which at the time was the level above Fati’s.

“I’m a little worried about you,” Popal wrote to Nilab in Dari. “Are you OK?”

Nilab responded with a harrowing voice message: “No, Khalida, I swear to God, we are locked in the house. You know that enemies are on every side of our house.”

She ended by saying, “We have no way to escape. If you can do anything for us, please help us.”

Within hours, Popal was added to the group chat and introduced herself.

I’m sorry for you girls that you can’t play soccer anymore. I am in contact with you from Denmark. I am going to try to find a way for you to get out of Afghanistan. I’m trying to get you out.

And wherever you end up, the U.S.A. or wherever, after that you can help your family.

But not now.

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