You know you’re being seriously affected when there is a war here in your country
“My father was a drug addict, and my mother had tuberculosis. She died in 1994 when I was three months old,” says former Afghanistan national football captain Khalida Popal, sitting under a tree in a tarpaulin in the tiny coffee shop in Kabul that hosts the annual football celebration, Shagul.
“When my father became depressed, my mother died on the same day, and I couldn’t stop crying,” says Popal, who was given the mission to look after her nine-year-old brother and three young sisters.
It was only years later that Popal learned that her father had been killed in a brutal battle between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban during the Afghanistan civil war in 1996. She was nine.
“My mother had been protesting with the other women in the family and screaming that they would never give up their fight against the Taliban.
“Suddenly, she was killed – I was just nine years old and didn’t understand anything,” said Popal, who has since turned her passion for football into a career. “I never understood why the Taliban turned against my mother,” she told the Guardian.
After a few years of extreme poverty, Popal managed to find a young Afghan footballer named Safiullah. They became friends and accepted that she would be their only mother. “He took me in and would look after me. I grew up without a father. My mother was a drug addict and I fell sick with tuberculosis. Every time we went to see her she would have a fever.”
But her father was never her number one fan.
“My father was a drug addict and he used to beat my brothers and sisters. He lost his job in the ministry of public works, so in 1997, he went off on a mission in an Afghan army lorry and he was arrested on the road. The soldier who arrested him went missing for eight years,” said Popal.
“So one day, I was told that all the Taliban soldiers had to travel back to Afghanistan to lead the revolution against the national government. It’s not true. There is no revolution in Afghanistan. We fought to get away from the Taliban.
“I remember his eyes would take me by surprise when he saw my face and the fact that I was quite pretty. He would come back and tell me how beautiful I was. He always talked about women’s rights and telling me how I should aspire to the same level as him, and because of this, I felt the need to try harder, to look more beautiful. And this actually made me feel stronger, to get back at him. I never tried to hurt him again.”
Popal’s father’s memory stayed with her as she developed a passionate love of football.
“I realised that football means peace, that it could change our country. I started playing when I was nine years old and five years later, I was playing for the national team. All I ever wanted was to do something for my country, to help us win more games and more titles.
“You know you’re being seriously affected when there is a war here in your country.”
Three years ago, Popal won her first Asian Games gold medal and now she has been nominated for her second. “I can’t wait,” she said. “It would be a great honour.”
• Khalida Popal is one of two leading female players from Afghanistan who have been nominated for the Golden Ball, at the Asian Football Confederation Women’s Asia Cup final in Tokyo on 7 December.