For Afghan women footballers, goal is acceptance

ISLAMABAD (AFP) — Six years ago in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan football looked like a thing of the past, banned for men and unimaginable for women, who were barred from all outdoor sport.

But with the demise of the Islamic extremists -- who also banned music, dancing and kite-flying -- the sport has made such a spectacular comeback that there are now 17 women's football teams in the war-battered country.

And this week in Islamabad, Afghanistan's women players, participating in the third Pakistan National Women's Championship, sprang a major surprise by reaching the final.

In a major upset Afghanistan beat Baluchistan by 1-0 to gate-crash into the final scheduled for Friday.

Captain Shamila Kohistani scored the lone goal in the 11th minute to stun favourites Baluchistan, who had reached the semi-finals after beating last year's runners-up, the Islamabad team.

"Long Live Afghanistan," jubilant players shouted, waving their national flag while supporters danced over a drum beat.

"Yes, I was very confident to win this match and to reach the final. My team has high morale to win the championship," Kohistani told AFP.

Kohistani is proud and thrilled to be leading her squad on its first trip abroad.

She sees it not only as promoting the sport to young Afghan women at home, but fostering friendship between the two countries, which have had a somewhat fractious relationship.

"I am very happy about this," Kohistani said.

"We have never played outside Afghanistan. My players are very happy and our visit to Pakistan will promote goodwill and friendly relations between the two nations," she said.

Their coach Abdul Saboor Walizada said football was gaining popularity among young Afghan girls and many schools were starting to field teams.

"There is no national women's football team in Afghanistan, but Insha Allah (God willing) we are going to have one soon," he said.

The 18 members of the Afghan squad here, aged 15 to 18 years old, wear red and black T-shirts and trousers.

They hope that the kit is baggy enough not to offend anyone who thinks it indecorous, and in contravention of any religious mores, for them to be playing football in the first place.

While many women and girls in Afghanistan still remain behind the veil, cloistered in their homes and denied access to education and sport, things are changing, Kohistani says.

"In Afghanistan we did not face any difficulty to play football," she said of the members of her squad. "My family fully supported me and encouraged me.

"I know women in Pakistan also face same situation and without the support of their families they would not be able to play.

"But it is very important for the future of my country that women take active part in all walks of life, not only sports."

Taking part in Pakistan, she said, was all about gaining experience that will firmly help establish the game among young Afghan women at home.

"Winning and losing is not so important, I always hope and wish to get experience in the game."

Her team was drawn from the best players after competitions between 17 school clubs in Kabul.

Centre forward Sajia Saharfarid, 17, said the team came from different parts of the country, including southern, central and northern Afghan provinces.

"We have played with the ISAF team as well," Saharfarid said, referring to the NATO-led military's women's football team.

In Kabul there was little fear of retribution from the Taliban -- which is waging an increasingly violent insurgency in the country -- and girls were free to enjoy whatever sport they liked.

But for girls in the south, where the insurgency is concentrated, it was a different story, she said, with girls' freedoms strictly controlled.

Nevertheless, team manager Halima Sanger has high hopes for the development of football in Afghanistan.

"I see a very bright future," Sanger said, adding she envied the facilities available to Pakistani teams.

"If we have similar facilities in Afghanistan, we can become the best women's team in the world," she said.

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