The Afghan national soccer team’s female players were nervous. They had been moving around the country for weeks, waiting for word that they could leave.
One aspires to be a doctor, another a film producer, and still others engineers. All of them aspire to be professional soccer players when they grow up.
The message arrived early Sunday: a charter flight would transport the girls and their families from Afghanistan to an unknown location. The buses that would take them to the airport had already left.
“They left their homes and everything behind,” Farkhunda Muhtaj, the captain of Afghanistan’s women’s national team, who had spent the last few weeks communicating with the girls and working to arrange their rescue from her home in Canada, told reporters. “They can’t believe they’re out of Afghanistan.”
The girls, ages 14 to 16, and their families had been attempting to flee Afghanistan since the United States’ withdrawal, fearing what their lives would be like under the Taliban — not only because women and girls are forbidden to play sports, but also because they were advocates for girls and active members of their communities.
They arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, late Sunday.
Muhtaj, members of the soccer team, some of their family members, and soccer federation staff spoke about their final days in Afghanistan, the international effort to rescue them, and the promise of their newfound freedom in interviews this week.
According to Nic McKinley, a CIA and Air Force veteran who founded Dallas-based DeliverFund, a nonprofit that has secured housing for 50 Afghan families, the rescue mission, dubbed Operation Soccer Balls, was coordinated with the Taliban through an international coalition of former US military and intelligence officials, US Sen. Chris Coons, US allies, and humanitarian groups.
Operation Soccer Balls had suffered a number of setbacks, including several failed rescue attempts and a suicide bombing at Kabul Airport by Islamic State militants, the Taliban’s rivals, which killed 169 Afghans and 13 US service members. That bombing occurred during a harrowing airlift in which the US military admitted to coordinating with the Taliban to some extent.
The group’s size – 80 people, including the 26 youth team members as well as adults and other children, including infants – complicated the rescue effort. According to Robert McCreary, a former congressional chief of staff and White House official under President George W. Bush who has worked with special forces in Afghanistan and led the effort to rescue the national girls soccer team, Portugal granted the girls and their families asylum.
“The entire world came together to help these girls and their families,” McCreary explained. “These girls are truly a beacon of hope for the rest of the world and humanity.”
The Taliban has attempted to project a new image by promising amnesty to former opponents and appointing an inclusive government. Many Afghans are skeptical of the Taliban’s promises, fearing that they will quickly revert to the brutal tactics of their 1996-2001 rule, such as barring girls and women from schools and jobs.
The Taliban established a ministry for the “propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice” in the building that previously housed the Women’s Affairs Ministry this week, the latest indication that it is restricting women’s rights.
Muhtaj, who is also a teacher, said she helped the girls stay calm as they moved from safehouse to safehouse by giving them virtual exercise and yoga sessions, as well as homework assignments such as writing autobiographies. She stated that she was unable to share details about the rescue mission with the girls or their families, and she asked them to trust her and others “blindly.”
“Their mental condition was deteriorating. Many of them yearned for home. “Many of them missed their friends in Kabul,” Muhtaj explained. “They had unwavering faith. We’ve given them a new lease on life.”
Some of the girls communicated with the help of an interpreter. They stated that they want to continue playing soccer, which they were advised not to do while in hiding, and that they hope to meet Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United’s forward and a native of Portugal. Wida Zemarai, a goalkeeper and coach for Afghanistan’s women’s national soccer team who moved to Sweden after the Taliban took power in 1996, said the girls were emotional after being rescued.