The Guardian has a report today in which multiple figures involved in Afghanistan women’s soccer exposed what they say is a culture of abuse of the female national team’s players on the part of prominent male figures in the Afghanistan Football Federation. One former captain of the women’s team and head of Afghan women’s soccer said she performed an investigation into the matter and found several instances of “physical abuse, sexual abuse, death threats and rape cases.”
Khalida Popal, the former captain and women’s soccer official who performed the aforementioned investigation, is a pioneer in Afghan women’s soccer. Though she was forced to flee the country in 2016 out of fear for her life, she has remained active in the women’s soccer scene in her home country. It was in this capacity that she began to hear stories of the AFF’s abuses of her countrywomen.
In February, Popal organized a training camp for the national team that was held in Jordan. The camp called in both women who lived in Afghanistan and those from abroad. Popal says she noticed something strange about two men whom the AFF sent along with the contingent that traveled to Jordan from Afghanistan:
“[The AFF] sent two male representatives, going under the title of ‘head of women’s football’ and ‘assistant coach’,” [Popal] said. “They were bullying and harassing the girls, particularly the ones from Afghanistan because they knew they wouldn’t speak up. I confronted them, told them they can’t do that and I’d make a complaint.
“It continued. These guys were calling on the rooms of the players and sleeping with the girls. AFF staff members would say to girls that they could get them on the team list and would pay them £100 a month if they would say yes to everything. They were pushing and forcing the girls. Coercing them.”
Upon learning of this, Popal called the AFF president, Keramuudin Karim, and asked him to do something about it. Karim promised her he would deal with the matter. When the camp was over, nine players from the national team had been kicked off the team and accused of being lesbians. Popal believed this was direct retaliation on the part of Karim to silence the women, who he feared would go public with their allegations:
“The president [privately] labelled them lesbians to silence them from speaking out about the sexual abuse in Jordan and abuses by coaches. He beat one of the girls with a snooker cue. He beat the player and said she was a lesbian and she was kicked out of the federation.
“If they spoke out, no one would listen to them because being accused of being lesbian or gay in Afghanistan is a topic you don’t speak about and puts you and your family in a lot of danger.”
It was after this incident that Popal started her investigation into AFF leadership’s misconduct. As she told the Guardian, during the investigation she found that abuse was rampant and that much of it stemmed directly from Karim himself:
“While I was doing the investigation with these players I found out the huge extent of the abuse, sexually, mentally, physically, happening from the president himself.”
She claimed: “Not only that, he has a room inside his office that is a bedroom with a bed. The doors of his office [use] fingerprint recognition, so when players go in they can’t get out without the fingerprint of the president.
“I tried to search for the girls. I found some of the girls that were sexually abused, and physically abused if they said no. The federation would make an excuse to get rid of the player so that if they came out [and spoke publicly], it would look like they were just upset about being kicked off the team. That investigation took me half a year and there was physical abuse, sexual abuse, death threats and rape cases.”
Popal passed this information on to the national team’s coach, Kelly Lindsey, an American. Lindsey told the Guardian that she attempted to take the issue up with the Asian Football Confederation, but the leaders there claimed they couldn’t help. At some point the issue was raised to FIFA. A spokesperson for soccer’s governing body told the Guardian that FIFA is well aware of the issue and has been working closely with the Afghan women’s players behind the scenes to protect them. FIFA has also solicited help from the U.N.
Danish sportswear brand Hummel, the AFF’s main sponsor, cut ties with the federation after hearing about the abuse claims. The AFF itself told the Guardian that it “vigorously rejects the false accusations made with regard to the AFF’s women’s national team,” and that it has a “zero-tolerance policy towards any such type of behaviour.”