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Members of the Afghan women's football team attend Morocco's practice ahead of the Women's World Cup in Melbourne, Australia on Wednesday. Image Credit: AP

Melbourne: Over the next month, 32 national football teams will compete across Australia and New Zealand in the Women’s World Cup. A 33rd team — unofficial, by Fifa’s standards — will also be in Australia, but in the stands.

Members of the Afghanistan national women’s football team, which was evacuated to Australia when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, paid a visit to Morocco’s public training session Wednesday. The eight players attended with a small crowd of enthusiastic Morocco supporters who were bearing red and green flags and scarves.

Morocco, making its Women’s World Cup debut, is the first Arab nation to qualify for the tournament. Like Afghanistan, the North African nation has a large Muslim population.

The exiled Afghan players, now based in Melbourne, hope that the Atlas Lionesses’ participation in the tournament will help further build the case that Muslim women belong in the sport.

“This is a huge chance for the Moroccan team to show the world that Muslim women in every single country can participate,” Afghanistan’s Farida Mohammadi said.

Recognition for the team

The Taliban barred women from participating in sports in Afghanistan, leading to the evacuation of many female athletes for their safety. Flying halfway around the world, the football team disappeared from the Fifa world rankings, since the Afghan government no longer sanctions the team. The players have called on Fifa to recognise their team so that they can compete internationally.

“What motivates us is that we are the voice for the women back home,” Afghan player Mursal Sadat said. “We are a mirror that reflects how hard their lives are and how it is hard for them to live in Afghanistan, to have no rights, to be banned from everything.

“We would like to ask for Fifa to accept and to qualify (the) Afghan women’s team to represent those women and girls back home, so they have a voice.”

In Australia, the team competes against other clubs across Victoria as a part of Melbourne Victory FC. The players range in age from 17 to 23, said Elsedeaq Heidelberg Mosque imam Alaa Elzokm, who was with the team at Morocco’s training session. They also work or study in Australia.

Many of their families are still in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran, team member Adiba Ganji said.

Financial and social limitations

Historically, the development of women’s football has faced financial or social limitations in some countries, but Morocco has established two divisions of professional women’s football and hosted the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, setting attendance records for the tournament.

“The (Moroccan) government, the people, accepted these girls to play for them and represent their country,” Mohammadi said. “We’re living in a modern era, and we don’t have to follow the old-school thoughts.”

The day before visiting Morocco’s training session, the Afghan team put on its own match: the inaugural Hope Cup. The team played Football Empowerment, a team representing Melbourne’s refugee communities, on a field 45 minutes north of the stadium where Melbourne will host six World Cup matches.

Former Afghan women’s team captain Khalida Popal, who was part of the group of lawyers, activists and advisors who helped the Afghan players evacuate to Australia, was present at the Hope Cup, as were media members and local officials.

“This game is a celebration of everything football should be,” Popal said in a news release from Melbourne Victory. “We want this match to highlight our team’s desire to compete internationally once again with Fifa’s biggest competition being held in just a few days’ time.”

Extraordinary feeling

Afghan player Mursal Sadat said that, in Afghanistan, female players would wear masks to compete safely or would walk an hour just to get a chance to play.

“There are things that need to be heard,” Sadat said. “How tough it was for us to continue this journey, how risky it was for Afghan women to be strong, to compete, to play and to get their rights. And how tough it is now, to be here, without family.”

Mohammadi said that players on the team grew up watching European games and World Cups on television, so to watch the games live and in person over the next month “feels extraordinary.” It is a reminder of where they hope their team will be.

“One day, there will be an Afghanistan women’s national football team, so they can represent their country, and they can be qualified for the World Cup,” Mohammadi said.