By Annika Mayers
On May 15th, the Washington Spirit welcomed Khalida Popal, founder and former captain of the Afghan Women’s Football Team, as an honored guest at the game against Angel City FC. Two days later, Popal and two other trailblazing Afghan women received the Human Rights Prize from the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights.
Popal grew up under Taliban rule and led the fight for women’s equality in sport in Afghanistan, despite the constant threat of retaliation. Khalida began playing soccer in her school courtyard when she was a young teenager although it was forbidden for girls. Many of her peers joined her and they quickly came under fire in their community. However, the interest of the girls around her only empowered her.
In 2007, three years after she started playing, Popal formed the Afghan women’s football team and by 2008, the first Afghan women’s national team was formed. As the first woman employed by the Afghanistan Football Federation, Popal acted as the Finance Officer and later the Director of the Women’s Football committee. She founded the Girl Power Organization to expand soccer accessibility throughout the country and routinely spoke out about corruption and male abuses of power within the country. As a result,her own life was threatened, forcing her to flee the country in 2011 for her safety. She has never given up on her mission for justice, despite navigating different refugee camps and suffering an injury that ended her soccer career. To Khalida, soccer is freedom, and she wants every woman to be able to enjoy it.
Khalida now lives in Denmark and continues to fight tirelessly for women’s rights, specifically through her foundation. She speaks regularly at conferences to raise awareness of the human rights violations of the Taliban and works diligently to help her fellow teammates still in danger in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban regained power in August 2021, she has helped facilitate the rescue of over 150 people. Popal continues to advocate for the evacuation of remaining youth national teams being 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 receive the foundation’s prestigious Human Rights Prize. This award, founded by Congressman Tom Lantos and his family, honors individuals dedicated to fighting against and drawing attention to human rights violations worldwide.
During a ceremony in the Member’s Room at the Library of Congress, Popal received a standing ovation for her speech, sharing a glimpse into her childhood experience with the Taliban and urging people not to forget the dire situation still occurring in Afghanistan.
Two nights before the event, Popal attended the Spirit’s match against Angel City, where she was an honorary captain and took part in the coin toss. The Spirit, with the help of React DC and Arlington Neighbors Welcoming Afghans (ANWA), were also able to bring some of the many families that have been resettled in the DC area to the game. The families met with Popal at the game, offering the chance to once again share a language and a love of soccer so far from where they originally called home.
It’s another example of the truly special moments brought on by a game we all love, but given power by the simplicity of human connection.