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Of headscarves and soccer

Kabul: It’s the most popular sport in Afghanistan.

For barefoot boys as young as four in tatty shirts, to turbaned men in their sixties, football is a passion.

Kabul’s Olympic Stadium, a venue of executions during Taliban rule, is often packed with fans watching amateur league games. And these days, football is attracting the most unusual of players: teenage girls.

Once or twice a week, a dozen girls in black school uniform, black shoes, and white headscarves or “chadars” gather in a dusty Kabul school ground surrounded by a high wall for a kick around.

“I like football because it is the best sport. It is the king of all sports,” puffs Humaira, 17, during a break in the game.

Humaira then goes off and does what two years ago would have been unthinkable during the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban: she removes the white scarf from her head and wraps it around her shoulder and waist.

This allows her to move freely and run faster.

Until the overthrow of the Taliban by a US-led coalition in late 2001, women’s football was out of the question — indeed women were not even allowed to venture outdoors without burqas.

And women accused of adultery and other violations of Islamic law were among those publicly executed while kneeling on the goal-line at the national stadium.

That horror seems a world away today.

Humaira shouts out to her teammates, who desperately try to kick the ball towards an imaginary goal. When the ball eventually reaches one side of the ground, Humaira’s team shouts “goal!” and it is. But there are no goalposts as the girls don’t have a proper football pitch.

Strict Islamic tradition still discourages girls from playing in public, limiting them to practice in the cramped school playground which doubles as a volleyball and basketball court. “We’re happy now that we can play, but we don’t have a place to practice and we don’t have proper kit,” said Nassrin, 16, as she wiped sweat from her brow in the midday sun.

The girls say they need a covered football pitch, but their school does not have the funds. Afghanistan’s football federation has tried to help, but with limited funds, it can only encourage the girls to continue playing in their own space and time. “The reality is our society is not yet ready to see Afghan girls play football in public,” said football coach and federation member Habib Ullah Niazai.

“But we will continue to make people aware and hopefully we will have enough funds to help these girls fulfil their dreams.”

An appeal for help from abroad has yet to yield any results. (Reuters)

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