‘Lives at risk’: Fifa criticised after refusing to back calls to free Afghan girls from youth football team

·4-min read
Taliban soldiers in Panjshir province in northeast of Afghanistan on 8 September (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Taliban soldiers in Panjshir province in northeast of Afghanistan on 8 September (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Fifa has been condemned after refusing to back calls to free dozens of young players from the Afghan Girls National Youth Football Team and their families currently trapped in hiding in Afghanistan.

Criticism comes after The Independent recently revealed 32 girls are stranded in Afghanistan - after seeing a letter which asked Pakistan’s prime minister to urgently help.

The letter, which urges Pakistan’s PM, Imran Khan, to give the girls and their families temporary visas to enable them to enter Pakistan, warned “time is running out” and the girls are at risk of “grave threats” from the Taliban and “disintegrating security”.

Campaigners told The Independent the young women, many of who are in their teens, are in hiding in places as reports surface of the Taliban searching hotels in a bid to track them down.

“These teenage and young female athletes are at immediate risk because of their association with women’s football in Afghanistan and their participation in national public football tournaments,” states the letter, which was signed by Kashif Siddiqi, a London-born footballer who played for Pakistan’s international team and who co-founded an NGO called Football for Peace.

After publishing the article, The Independent asked Fifa if it would lend its backing to calls to rescue the young football players and their families but Fifa, the highest governing body of association football, has so far refused to say whether or not it would support the campaign.

Speaking to The Independent, Gary Lineker, Match Of The Day host and former England footballer, said: “If they don’t back it, it is morally wrong. I hope Fifa back this and help these poor young girls and their families in their dreadful situation. Football owes it to them.”

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, argued that Fifa should be utilising its substantial clout to safeguard young players’ human rights.

Ms Worden added: “Like governments and agencies, clearly Fifa can and should be using its enormous power and resources to protect the human rights of youth players and their families - including supporting efforts to get them to safety.

“Female athletes - and I would say also their trainers, referees, team doctors, female federation officials and coaches - are at special risk of persecution or retaliation from the Taliban precisely because they were encouraged not just to be athletes - but also public role models for women's rights and gender equality.

“Fifa and the IOC are not governments, but they do have huge soft power and influence, including with the government of Pakistan and the PFF, the Pakistan Football Federation, which is a member of Fifa.”

The Independent understands Pakistan’s PM is more likely to allow the girls from the football team entry to his country if Fifa requests help.

Chris Thomas, the founder of Football for Humanity, told The Independent: ”Given the grave threats to the Afghan Girls National Youth Football Team and their families, it would be good for Fifa to step in and provide support for these players, most probably assist in giving them safe passage into Pakistan where they will be stable until they are ready to be deployed to more permanent locations.

“Football is a team game, and now is the time to show the world how powerful football is when we work together. By acting together, we can achieve anything.”

Mr Thomas said the organisation has a “refugee-led, football-focused, psychosocial programme” in Manchester which is currently getting ready for an “influx of Afghan people” to join the scheme.

Tony Burnett, chief executive of Kick It Out, a campaign group which tackles racism and discrimination in football, said: “If Fifa do not support this, it shows once again their disregard for the human rights of people who play and support the game of football.

“These young women’s lives are at risk simply because they participate in football. What message does it send when world football’s governing body is not prepared to support them? It is 2021 and nobody should be at risk of harm because they play football.

“We urge Fifa to show leadership and do the right thing before it is too late. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Afghani people and their families.”

Last time the Taliban ruled the country women were barred from working, girls were blocked from going to school, and women had to be chaperoned by a male relative if they wanted to leave the house.

Mark Perryman, the co-founder of Philosophy Football who writes about politics and football, told The Independent: “Fifa projects itself as the guardian of a global game which too often becomes a mission not to upset any regime, however offensive, to keep them on the pitch.

“It comes as no surprise in a match between the Taliban and young Afghan women footballers they chose the wrong side.”

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