When you’re flying on a commercial airline, there’s one thing you never want to do: miss your flight. But sometimes, even with the best of intentions and a whole lot of planning, it happens.
The slc airport phase 2 is a phrase that is often used in the movie, The Hangover. It means that you need to get through all of the security checkpoints to reach your destination.
12:22 PM EST ET
ESPN’s Jonathan Selvaraj
“I had the option of sitting and crying when the Afghan government fell and the Taliban took over Kabul,” Khalida Popal explains. “I could make a social media message about how concerned I am for my nation and how sad I am, yet be grateful that I am no longer in Afghanistan.”
She chose to fight instead.
“I managed to keep my emotions under control. There will be no more feeling. I can’t deploy an aircraft to Afghanistan because I don’t have the authority to do so. I won’t be able to travel to Afghanistan and bring my guys out on my own. But I still have power, and my voice is my power. My voice is powerful.”
Popal, a pioneer of women’s football in Afghanistan and the country’s first national-team captain, and a small group of dedicated female players and coaches have successfully evacuated dozens of players and their families from Afghanistan, where the Taliban have historically prohibited women from participating in sports. “We were able to transport almost 80 individuals out of Afghanistan, including players and their families, who are now on their way to Australia,” Popal said.
Popal, speaking from her residence in Denmark, told ESPN about the rescue attempt, her frustrations, and her hopes and concerns for the future over the course of many phone calls over two days.
She has been engaged in the growth of the sport in Denmark even after leaving the country a decade ago due to death threats. Her present responsibilities are the most significant in her life, she believes. Popal, 34, is part of a FIFPRO legal team that has worked with authorities in six countries, including Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, to place athletes and their families on evacuation lists and planes to safety.
“We’re a tiny group of people working around the clock to bring our first national team and their families out of Afghanistan,” she said. “We haven’t slept or eaten in days since we’ve been working nonstop to get visas, paperwork, and them to the airport.”
“It has been very tough and complicated to connect with them from the outside, to advise and urge them to have hope. Everyone on the squad has played a unique role. My primary responsibility was to reach out to individuals and seek assistance for my Afghan ladies. Keep in contact with my athletes and my ladies. Make a promise to them that they will never lose hope. Please don’t give up. Don’t give up.”
During the talks, Popal’s voice breaks often, but she maintains her cool.
“My heart might be cracking, and I wanted to give up so badly,” she says. “Perhaps when they’re all gone, I’ll weep for my country and for those fighting for peace and a better Afghanistan,” she adds.
On December 21, 2020, Khalida Popal poses for a picture at Farum Park Stadium in Denmark. Getty Images/TARIQ MIKKEL KHAN/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP
Popal called members of the national team in Afghanistan when she first learned of the Taliban’s lightning-quick capture of the country’s capital.
“First, I made sure they were safe,” she said. “They were both safe and utterly broken. ‘It’s all over,’ they kept saying. That’s when I realized I needed to act.”
She quickly urged them to burn their jerseys, which had previously served as a sign of national pride but were now easy targets. She then started making additional calls. Recognizing that she lacked the financial means to assist them, she chose to rely on her professional contacts and reputation.
“I began talking with friends from FIFPRO,” she adds, referring to the Dutch organization that represents 65,000 professional players across the world. “I simply knew I needed assistance to get my kids out. I told them I couldn’t do it since I didn’t know how. ‘My ladies are trapped,’ I informed them. That’s when wonderful people began to band together to assist me.”
She also contacted a small number of acquaintances, including Kelly Lindsey, a former USA international. Everyone has a specific job to do, such as contacting governments and organizing papers. Popal, who spoke the local language and was in contact with the players, was in charge of coordinating activities on the ground.
“I’ve acted as a coach from the outside,” she said. “I’ve been sending and receiving voice messages to them. I’ve had to offer them hope that they can remain together, strong, and supportive of one another. We were able to get part of the crew out with the help of the Australian and Canadian governments, as well as some Americans.”
Popal was on high alert for almost a week, stating “The three nights they spent attempting to sneak into Kabul’s airport were among the most difficult of my life. My back was facing the wall, my computer was on my lap, and both my phone and laptop were continuously charging. I was making phone calls, leaving voice messages, and dealing with visas. I was acting as a go-between. I was a number ten. I needed to connect with my gamers as well as provide information to my support staff.”
With volunteers all across the world, there was no time to waste.
Sleepless evenings as a result of being on the phone all night answering inquiries. Managing the media, motivating players to keep battling and not give up despite gunshots, and being defeated. It was a challenge. The 75 players, as well as a few family members, have left Afghanistan. Teamwork. Work is still going on. pic.twitter.com/wv5WUF10Wd
August 24, 2021 — Khalida Popal (@khalida popal)
“We worked all hours of the day and night. We’d have emergency situations around 4 or 5 a.m. I just got a few hours of sleep. And even if I just slept for an hour out of the 24 hours, I could feel my phone ringing and that something had occurred to some of my ladies when I closed my eyes. And someone was pleading for assistance “she explains.
Popal, like the captain she once was, had to maintain her cool even when everything seemed to be crumbling around her.
“I felt like my guys were on the verge of death on two nights,” she added. “Outside the airport, there are many Taliban checkpoints. It was a nightmare getting past each checkpoint. They were assaulted by Taliban at several checkpoints; they were wounded, bleeding, and there were gunfire; some of them collapsed. I was talking to them on the phone when I heard gunshots. These young ladies were terrified. They didn’t know whether they’d make it. I wasn’t sure they’d be able to make it,”
Indeed, reports of bomb explosions outside Kabul airport interrupted one of Popal’s conversations with ESPN on Thursday, when hundreds of people – including some Popal was attempting to escape – were still attempting to board planes. She later tweeted her worries after seeing the devastation: “Last night, our guys were precisely where they were. I’m scared and nervous, and my stomach hurts. I’m not sure whether any of our guys are there. I’m concerned.”
She would learn, much to her relief, that they were safe a few hours later. However, she needed to give them the appearance that she was confident and in command.
She said, “Some of these girls are 16 or 17 years old.” “They were separated from the majority of their family members, and they weren’t sure they’d make it.” I felt sick to my stomach with fear of losing them, but I was trying not to let it show in my voice.
“‘We are a football team, and this is a football match,’ I tried to remain upbeat. We’re going to come out on top. This is the final, and we will win the competitions we are competing in and take home the trophy. Getting to the gate is the prize. We need to go to the [US] troops as soon as possible. We need to leave Afghanistan. That was the strategy for energizing them.”
It wasn’t easy, and morale in Afghanistan was understandably low at times.
“Several of them were in tears. ‘I am exhausted,’ they said. My body is incapable of moving ahead. It’s excruciating. I’m in excruciating agony. I’ve been beaten by them (the Taliban).’ ‘I will not give up,’ they declared afterwards. ‘I’m going to go ahead.’ That’s exactly what I told them. Whatever happens, we’ll keep moving ahead. This is our one and only shot for liberty. This is our one shot at living a decent life. We’re on our way to being free “she explains.
Popal was especially touched by the players’ sense of unity.
“They informed me, ‘We’re going as a group.’ ‘We’ll take the last individual we have.’ We are not going to leave anybody behind.’ This is how I’ve gotten them to do things “she said “This is one of the most wonderful lessons I’ve learnt from football: we’ll never leave anybody behind. ‘We’ll take them with us even if one of us passes out,’ they said. They have shown leadership and collaboration. They’ve remained together. When one group arrived at the gate, they informed the others on how to get there.”
Popal appeared genuinely surprised by her efforts’ effectiveness.
“To be honest, I had no idea what to do. I’m not a rescuer, so don’t expect me to come to your assistance “she said “I’ve never been one to come to someone’s aid. I’m not sure what the best approach to encourage folks not to quit up is. Football has taught me just one thing: how to keep the squad going and battling. Keep your spirits up and don’t give up. During the two nights when they were in enemy hands, I utilized the beautiful side of football.”
Popal fled Afghanistan ten years ago after receiving death threats, ultimately settling in Denmark. AP Jan M. Olsen/Photos
Popal was perhaps referring to her own experience in assisting others. She left Afghanistan a decade ago after receiving numerous death threats as a result of her advocacy. She crossed the border into Pakistan, then into India, before seeking asylum in Denmark.
After accusations of sexual assault against the then-head of the Afghan Football Federation, she assisted other players of the national squad in fleeing the country. (In 2019, FIFA banned the president, Keramuddin Karim, for life from all football-related activities after a FIFA inquiry found him guilty of “abusing his position and sexually abusing different female players, in breach of the FIFA code of ethics.”)
According to Popal, this evacuation was much more difficult.
“I was in grave danger when I left,” she said. “Because I was feeling the dread personally, that was frightening. Then, in 2018, when I assisted a group of players in fleeing Afghanistan, the international community still had a large military presence in the country. This time, though, it was the most perilous since the Taliban had so much authority and were firing at civilians. I had no influence over the situation on the ground. The gun was in the hands of the Taliban. They were robbing gamers of their phones. A football-playing lady in Afghanistan is doing something new. An Afghan lady footballer is easily identifiable, and everyone of them has set their sights on her.”
Popal is disappointed by what she claims is a lack of support from FIFA, the IOC, and other international sport organizations. While she is amazed at what she and the small group she has been working with have been able to accomplish, she is disappointed by what she claims is a lack of support from FIFA, the IOC, and other international sport organizations.
“We (the ladies conducting the evacuation) were nobodies,” says one of the women who led the evacuation. I’m only a footballer, after all. “I’m not a government official,” she said. “Kelly works as a coach.” Despite the fact that we had no political power, we were able to band together and accomplish so much. What irritates me is that FIFA, the IOC, and all of the major football federations, including the Asian Football Confederation, did not reach out from the outset; they only did so when the media began questioning FIFA’s inactivity. They merely said that they were keeping an eye on the issue. They were well aware that the athletes’ lives were in jeopardy, yet they did nothing to help.
“I’m anxious for more people to come out. And I’m unable to do so since the situation has deteriorated. People with authority and connections, on the other hand, did not think quickly enough. They just made declarations. These organizations could have aided us if they had joined us earlier… They had a solid network and strong contacts. They may be able to speed up the procedure. They didn’t, though.”
Popal can’t help but feel a twinge of remorse as she continues to try to bring more players out. There were just five women’s footballers in Afghanistan when she began playing, she claims. Popal began her football career on a football field that had previously been used by the Taliban to kill women for offences such as adultery.
“From that number, we expanded and grew. We had 4,000 girls enrolled and playing throughout the nation this month. We didn’t only have a national squad; we had teams from all across the country “she explains.
All of that is now behind us – at least for the time being.
Popal has continued to contribute to the growth of the sport in Afghanistan even after relocating to Denmark. courtesy of Valeriano Di Domenico/FIFA/Getty Images
“All of my accomplishments, hard labor, and sacrifices throughout my life. For me, it’s been a long and arduous battle. I’ve never taken the time to just breathe and relax before. Even when I left the nation, I continued to fight for the growth of women’s football, and the terrible thing is that it has all but gone. All of your accomplishments have vanished. It’s almost as if it never occurred at all “she explains.
However, there is one example of such legacy.
“”I began playing women’s football to stand up for our voiceless sisters who have had their voices taken away by the Taliban, the Islamic state, and those who follow Sharia law,” she said. We held our ground. I was joined by a group of incredible ladies. The goal of the women’s football squad was to provide a platform for women to speak up and fight for one another. It provided me with a voice. That voice was crucial in assisting women fleeing the Taliban.”
Popal, despite all that has happened to her, refuses to weep.
“When I talked with the first set of players to fly out of Afghanistan, they burst into tears of joy. But I told them that now was not the time to weep. We can weep after we’ve arrived at a quiet, secure location. Then we’ll speak about how we’re feeling “she explains.
Only then will she inform them that they had won the most difficult match of their life. A party of more than 75 individuals was evacuated from Kabul this week, including members from Afghanistan’s women’s national team.
“I am very pleased of every single one of my team members who has made it to Australia,” she added. “They are the toughest people I’ve ever met, and they are incredible Afghan ladies. They are combatants. They were in excruciating agony, yet they never gave up.”
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