Exclusive: Afghan Popal defiantly battles a global issue facing women players

By Andrew Warshaw

February 22 – The former head of women’s football in Afghanistan says she would be killed if she ever returned to the country for lifting the lid on the abuse of women players.

Khalida Popal (pictured) says she will not be silenced and has urged FIFA to maintain pressure on those responsible and not to allow the issue to be swept under the carpet by the Afghan authorities.

Late last year Afghan FA president Keramuddin Karim was removed from office by the country’s attorney general while the allegations against members of the country’s women’s national team are investigated. FIFA followed suit by banning him during the course of the ongoing probe into what were described as “shocking” claims of sexual abuse.

Kerim has vehemently denied the allegations as has the Afghan FA which has dismissed them as “groundless”.

But in an interview with Insideworldfootball, Popal, who was forced to flee the country seven years ago and seek asylum in Denmark after receiving death threats, said the evidence was overwhelming and wants Kerim, whose 90-day FIFA suspension expires next month, to be kicked out for good.

“Of course the Afghan Football Federation have rejected my allegations. They want to find excuses for everything,” said Popal. “My job as the team manager was to raise awareness of what was happening, as a tool to give a voice to voiceless women.  In the beginning nobody dared come forward and say what had happened to them.”

Among her remarkable revelations is that Kerim branded nine women players whom he fired as lesbians to silence them from speaking out. “To be called a lesbian in Afghanistan is very dangerous,” said Popal. “It became clear that the Football Federation President had made up this rumour in order to silence these players. If they were called lesbians, no one would listen to them.”

Whilst she is reluctant to put a figure on the scale of the problem, Popal says “a significant number” of players were abused and harassed. “And not only women and girls, also young boys”

“What I’m worried about most is all of this being swept under the table by both the Afghan authorities and FIFA. We are waiting for FIFA to come up with a long-term decision. Personally I believe it should be a life ban for Kerim.”

Popal still has family in Afghanistan but knows what will happen to her if she tries to return.

“If I went back I would be killed. They would shoot me. I have made powerful enemies. For many others in Afghanistan, even talking about this topic is very bad.”

Last month a campaign launched by the Association Football Development Programme Global, spearheaded by two-time FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, called on FIFA to set up a fully independent body to investigate claims of abuse and to establish a proper grievance procedure so that victims are not too scared to come forward. In the meantime the Danish sportswear group Hummel has already announced it is cancelling its sponsorship deal with the AFF.

Popal says it is vital the international community maintains the ongoing narrative. “We couldn’t stand against this guy (Karim) on our own because he is too powerful so we are grateful to everyone who have supported us. I hope we can encourage more women players to come forward and share their stories.”

Popal believes what has happened to women players in Afghanistan could be the tip of the iceberg.

“I wouldn’t say this is just a regional issue, I think this is a global issue and taking place all over the world, in First World countries as well. Having travelled the world and spoken to people involved in women’s football, I know Afghanistan isn’t an isolated case.”

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