The Afghan football captain Khalida Popal has condemned a ban on Afghan women entering the national stadium after the football-mad country’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup last year.
Popal, who led the side with a solo strike in front of a cheering 10,000 crowd in Kabul in October to keep their place in the second round, said the recent decision by Fifa to prevent Afghan women from attending games had made her “feel sick”.
She told the Guardian that the groundswell of support for the team had “energised us in such a way that has never happened in our history.
“We had a wonderful night of fun, jubilation and celebration,” Popal said. “On that night we changed our mentality. Because of that Afghans never forget about football again.”
Popal, 33, said the ban came about after Afghanistan was eliminated in group play by both Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates at the inaugural Asian Cup in January. The team was a hot favourite to make it to the next round, and only to miss out by a few points.
“Within two days of the AFC [Asian Football Confederation] we heard that the head of football in Afghanistan, Mohammed Hayyah Mahseir, had sent a message to Fifa. We would be banned from watching and participating in any football matches in Afghan stadiums if we participate in any such Asian or Fifa competition this year,” she said.
The football governing body have not publicly addressed the ban. The Afghan Football Federation has also not responded to a request for comment.
Khalida Popal celebrates at the end of the Asian Cup in 2015. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images
Popal said the ban has left her government with few options. “Now there are only three alternatives for the people of Afghanistan: to suffer, to fear the Taliban or to follow the president of the football federation,” she said.
“We are at a severe crossroads. The real danger for the future of Afghan football now is political, not physical.”
Popal had not yet seen any evidence of a clampdown.
“When I heard about the ban I was shocked. I felt very sad. I have always supported women’s rights,” she said. “If you want to speak for women in Afghanistan you should be a spokesperson for the Afghan people and the government should not have made such a controversial and humiliating decision.”
Popal made history in January 2015 by becoming the first woman to captain a national football team to the Asian Cup.
She said that women in the country “can’t really do anything”.
“It’s hard for women in Afghanistan to work if there is not a government job. Even if they want to work with companies, they have to send their daughters to school and they have to give them allowances.
“Women are not capable of even making a good husband; it’s much more difficult for a woman to marry and be with her man in the field.”