NEW DELHI: The Ambedkar Stadium has been witness to famous days. On Tuesday, while the footballing acumen on display might not have echoed those halcyon days, the sight of 11 young girls with heads covered in scarves from Afghanistan’s Rabia Balkhi School giving it their all under the scorching sun drew cheers from the motley crowd present to watch the game.
A scoreline of 0-6 against Bangladesh Krira Shiksha Pratisthan (BKSP) could not dampen the spirits of these players. Even though they departed the Subroto Cup International Football Tournament for U-17 girls in the quarterfinal stage, their reaction after the game belied the result.
“They are enjoying themselves. Back home, such moments are a rarity. I’m glad to see them smiling constantly,” coach Zaher Hassani said, pointing to his 16-member team, busy running around and smiling. Back in Afganistan, football has to fight with Buzkashi and cricket in terms of popularity. The men’s team has had players who have come to the subcontinent to ply their trade. But the scenario surrounding the women’s game is vastly different.
A combination of religious factors, societal taboo as well as the political situation in the country has stopped the women’s game from making a name for itself. “So many of my friends are not allowed to play the sport. My parents always encouraged me to follow my dreams but others do not enjoy the same level of support. When I tell them stories, they look dejected. I wish things change in the future,” rued skipper Krishma Faqiri, a class X student. She is one of the few who can converse in Hindi and English.
Bollywood has played a major role in her Hindi lessons. “Watching Bollywood flicks is a guilty pleasure of mine. I have watched Tiger Zinda Hai multiple times. Tiger Shroff is my favourite actor,” Faqiri giggles as Razia Noori, another Bollywood and Barcelona fan, joins her. “Our religion does not allow us to play. Even if parents wish the best for their child, village heads, neighbours always discourage us. What we wear is also dictated to us. We don’t wish to fight, we only want to be free to choose what we want to do with our lives,” Razia added. Both share similar goals: to play for Barcelona and meet Lionel Messi and Neymar!
The feel-good atmosphere has spread to the hotel they are staying in. The entire house staff know them because of the mischief they are up to and in a very short time, they have captured the hearts of the organisers as well! “They hide stuff from the hotel staff, run around, crack jokes. They are not afraid to speak their mind and it is a far cry from what we read about their country,” one of the organisers, who works for the Air Force, said.
The coach, employed with Afghanistan Football Federation, revealed how difficult it was to convince parents. “Most think girls should be busy with household duty. Even the political climate is not safe. I have come to India three times and I look forward to coming here. At least for a few days, they can enjoy without being judged.”They might have exited the competition, but they still have another day-and-a-half left before their return. “The girls are desperate to see the Taj Mahal and do some shopping. I’m hoping we can manage it,” Zaher said. “Not manage, we have to,” the girls scream in unison!