Kicking tradition

Observations on sport

Coach Abdul Saboor Walizada should have had a face like thunder. His international side were 10-0 down at half-time, against a club team from Damascus. Instead, he gave softly spoken encouragement to his charges - the Afghan national women's football team - who had overcome such huge obstacles just to get on the pitch that he knew the "hairdryer treatment" wouldn't work.

The team were taking part in their second tournament on foreign soil, the Fifth Amman Arab Women's Futsal Championships in Jordan. Clubs from Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Oman, Jordan, Uzbekistan and Russia - as well as the national teams of Palestine and Afghanistan - had come to play this five-a-side version of the game. The cup is one of the few opportunities that women have to play football against each other, in the face of fierce opposition.

Women's football is in its infancy in the Middle East and central Asia. In some countries, such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, it has been strangled at birth after conservative religious law-makers banned the formation of a national team. The Afghan team was formed a year ago after Walizada - a former Afghan men's international player - launched a competition to find the country's best female players.

"When we started going to the schools, the principals wouldn't let us in, but then we spoke to the girls personally and they came to us," he said. "President Karzai gave us an award when we won our first match, but I've had threats made from people in the government because they say 'football is not for women'."

The team trains at Kabul's Olympic stadium, where hundreds of women were executed by the Taliban. Despite this macabre reminder, as well as the poor security situation and the difficulty Afghan women still face exercising in public, women have been eager for a chance to play.

Afghanistan's main striker, 13-year-old Jasmine Rasoul, started her own team two years ago. "We played outside against each other in the street, but we had problems. The men cursed at us, saying women shouldn't play football, but we ignored them and played anyway."

The game has struggled in other countries too, but despite the obstacles, interest in women's football is huge. Syria has four teams that have turned professional. Iran, proving that the compulsory headscarves the Iran Football Association insists female players wear are no barrier to victory, continue to batter everyone they play. Jordan now has eight teams competing in its own domestic league. "Women's football is now starting to become more popular in Jordan, and every year there are more championships like this, which can only improve the girls," explained Loay Shomaly, a former Jordanian international player and manager of the Orthodox club. "The first three or four years it was difficult to find girls, as the culture doesn't accept it, but lots of girls want to play now. It will change."

And what of the Afghans? Walizada could count "600 players, at least" in Afghanistan's provinces whom he could call on for international duty. In the meantime, he has to work with the country's first generation of women footballers and his team talk was something of a success. With the use of quiet, uplifting persuasion, the team only let in a further seven goals: 17-0 at full time. The two previous games might have ended 18-0 and 22-1, so it was progress. And the results didn't matter half as much as being there. "For women in Afghanistan," said Walizada, as his players tramped off the pitch, "this shows there is freedom and there is a chance for peace."

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!