Young Afghan women footballers enjoy emotional night watching Leeds United victory over Crystal Palace at Elland Road after escaping the Taliban
The Afghanistan Women’s youth development players who were helped to flee the Taliban by Leeds United chairman Andrea Radrizzani cried tears of happiness as they watched the Whites beat Crystal Palace 1-0 at Elland Road on Tuesday evening.
Twenty-five teenagers, their families and their coaches have made a home in West Yorkshire after violence and intimidation by the ultraconservative faction, whose gradual claim of control culminated in the fall of Kabul in August, forced hundreds of female athletes to flee Afghanistan.
After the team escaped to Pakistan, where they faced a return to the Taliban regime after the lapse of their 30-day visas, the Football for Peace charity campaigned to find a permanent, safe home for the players.
Leeds chairman Andrea Radrizzani answered the call, offering each member of the squad a place on the Whites’ youth development team and on November 18 the group of 130 Afghans arrived in the UK on a chartered flight funded in part by American influencer Kim Kardashian.
On Tuesday evening, Elland Road was alive with emotion as Raphinha’s dramatic injury-time penalty gave the Whites a vital win to haul the team five points clear of the drop-zone, but the occasion was especially joyous for the party of Afghans who watched from the West Stand after spending the day training at Thorp Arch.
Former captain of Afghanistan's national women's team Khalida Popal, who spearheaded the evacuation efforts, said the experience was transformative.
“It was a really beautiful moment to see them playing football and enjoying the moment together,” Popal said.
“Most of them lost hope that they could ever come out of the oppression of the Taliban, they can never manage to get to feel freedom, so yesterday once they touched the pitch that’s what they said – they finally felt freedom.
“When we were heading back to our place I was asking, ‘tell me the one thing about today that you loved the most?’
“And then they said, in one voice, ‘we loved everything, every moment, and this has been one of the best days in our life’.”
Since the need for aid first arose, Radrizzani has been very vocal in his desire to secure “a prosperous and peaceful future” for the girls, for which Popal expressed gratitude.
“Leeds offered their training facilities, they offered their coaches, professional coaches, they have also through their sponsor offered full kits and equipment for the players,” Popal explained to PA News Agency.
“So they have been very, very kind.
“I love the values the club stands for.
“The generosity and kindness in people there, it’s just more than a club. And it’s so beautiful to witness.
“What Andrea did was a great example, showing the power of football, and that’s what he did – through his dedication and support, he has shown the true values of the game.”
The 34-year-old took to social media on Wednesday morning to give a moving account of the squad’s experiences this week.
“My girls were able to train at the Leeds United academy,” Popal tweeted. “I have never seen a group after arriving to a football pitch cry of happiness, like meeting an old friend.
“Last night was marked as one of our happiest days. The training & the game was just fantastic.
“Thanks to Andrea Radrizzani and team.”
The Whites’ chairman replied to Popal’s tweet, sharing what the moment meant to him.
“It was great to have you and enjoy all together the unique atmosphere and emotions ONLY Elland Road and LUFC can provide,” Radrizzani tweeted. “MOT. a very special night with you and the group!”
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