She was flown to safety from the clutches of the Taliban – but is the Afghan girls’ soccer squad all that it seems? Officials claim that the real team members were left in Kabul to make room for the friends of the top players
- The Afghan girls’ soccer team that arrived in Britain last month was considered a success
- The squad of 35, aged between 13 and 19, fled Kabul and arrived in November.
- Figures say some players were ‘left behind’ to make way for top professional friends
When a plane landed in Britain last month carrying an Afghan girls’ soccer team that had fled the Taliban, the world hailed a humanitarian success.
It was reported that teens – the youth development squad – and their families will now enjoy a new life, thanks in part to American reality TV star Kim Kardashian who paid for the trip.
But The Mail on Sunday has learned that Mercy’s mission has been soured by a bitter war of words, with prominent figures in Afghan football claiming that team members were left behind to make room for the friends of the top players.
Much criticism was directed at former national team captain Khaleda Popal, who arranged places on the flight.
“The majority of the people on Ms Bhopal’s list are not players and their families at all,” said Arizo Rahimi, head of women’s football at the Afghan Football Association. Most of the players from the development team are still trapped in Afghanistan – they live in fear and have no hope of getting out.
But Bhopal denied any wrongdoing and said her accusers were jealous that they could not evacuate their families.
Upon their arrival in Britain, sources claimed there were “about 25” players from the Afghan Women’s Development Squad (pictured) on board, adding that the definition of the “al-Shabab” team in Afghanistan includes 23-year-olds.
Much criticism has been leveled at former national team captain Khaleda Popal (pictured left) who arranged places on the flight.
The BBC reported in October that the 35-member band, aged between 13 and 19, had fled Kabul, and on November 18 had arrived in the UK with their families.
On her arrival in Britain, Ms Bhopal said there were “about 25” players on board, adding that the definition of the “al-Shabab” team in Afghanistan included people as young as 23.
However, the list I made includes both basketball players and a football player who is 32 years old.
Rahimi and three former players analyzed the list of flights but were able to identify only 15 players out of the 132 people on board.
A separate list compiled by Rahimi showed that 28 eligible players, aged between 11 and 18, were still in Afghanistan.
Shamila Kohestani, former captain of the Afghanistan women’s soccer team, said: “These athletes risked their lives to play a match they loved, and now their lives are in danger again.
But no one is helping them, while other people who are not footballers have been evacuated.
I am not against these people and I want everyone who wants to leave Afghanistan to be able to do so, but we have real players left behind at risk.
Analysis of the flight list shows only 15 players of the 132 people on board, including two basketball players and even a 32-year-old soccer player. Pictured: Afghanistan women’s national football team training in Lisbon on September 30, 2021
Football for Peace, a humanitarian organization, was ready to support the players.
“This news is throwing these plans into disarray,” spokesman Richard Hellgrove said.
We were alarmed when our lawyers discovered a tweet from Shamila Kohestani that the majority of the so-called team weren’t actually players.
A Home Office spokesperson said last night: “We have worked with a number of organizations that have identified that group.
“If evidence emerges that the information provided was incorrect, the Home Office will investigate.”
Ms Popal said: “I would like to reiterate the fact that I have absolutely no family connection to any of the footballers who have arrived in the UK and these allegations are unfounded.”