By Annika Mayer
On May 15, the Washington Spirit welcomed Khalida Popal, founder and former captain of the Afghan Women Soccer Team, as guest of honor at the game against Angel City FC. Two days later, Popal and two other pioneering Afghan women received the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights Human Rights Award.
Growing up under Taliban rule, Popal led the fight for women’s equality in sport in Afghanistan despite constant threats of retaliation. Khalida began playing soccer in the schoolyard as a teenager, although girls were not allowed to. Many of her peers joined her and quickly came under fire in her community. However, the interest of the girls around her only encouraged her.
In 2007, three years after she started playing, Popal founded the Afghan women’s soccer team and in 2008 the first Afghan women’s national team was formed. The first woman to be employed by the Afghan Football Association, Popal served as financial officer and later director of the women’s football committee. She founded the Girl Power Organization to expand access to football across the country and spoke regularly about corruption and male abuse of power in the country. As a result, her own life was threatened, forcing her to flee the country for her safety in 2011. She never abandoned her mission for justice, despite going through various refugee camps and suffering an injury that ended her football career. For Khalida, football is freedom and she wants every woman to enjoy it.
Khalida now lives in Denmark and continues to fight tirelessly for women’s rights, particularly through her foundation. She regularly speaks at conferences to raise awareness of Taliban human rights abuses and works diligently to help her teammates who are still at risk in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, she has helped facilitate the rescue of over 150 people. Popal continues to campaign for the evacuation of the remaining youth national teams targeted by the Taliban.
The Spirit had the honor of working with the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights to make Popal’s visit special as she and two other pioneering Afghan women traveled to DC to accept the foundation’s prestigious human rights award. Established by Congressman Tom Lantos and his family, this award honors individuals who work to address and raise awareness of human rights abuses around the world.
During a ceremony in the Member’s Room of the Library of Congress, Popal received a standing ovation for her speech, in which she shared an insight into her childhood experience with the Taliban and urged people not to forget the dire situation that still prevails in Afghanistan.
Two nights before the event, Popal competed in the Spirit’s Match against Angel City, where she was honorary captain and participated in the coin toss. The Spirit, with the help of React DC and Arlington Neighbors Welcoming Afghans (ANWA), was also able to bring in some of the many families that have been relocated to the DC area. The families met with Popal at the game and provided an opportunity to once again share a language and a love of football so far removed from their original homes.
It’s another example of the truly special moments that come with a game we all love, but which is empowered by the simplicity of human connection.