‘Together unbreakable’: One player’s journey from the Afghan women’s soccer team to UC Davis

‘Together unbreakable’: One player’s journey from the Afghan women’s soccer team to UC Davis

When the Taliban captured Kabul in August, completing its takeover of Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of people attempted to flee the country. Among them were players on Afghanistan’s women’s soccer team. The team itself was a rebuke to the Taliban, which barred women from participating in sport and many other aspects of society, and the players were especially vulnerable. When the government fell, most of them went into hiding.

Around the same time, another player on the team, Mika Sayfurahman, moved into a freshman dorm at UC Davis to begin her collegiate soccer career. While Sayfurahman, who graduated high school in the spring, was a world away from Afghanistan, the events unfolding there consumed her.

Born in Moscow to Afghan parents, Sayfurahman’s family moved to Fremont when she was an infant. At 4 or 5e, she began kicking a ball around during her brothers’ games and practices. “My dad would pass a ball with me on the sidelines,” she told The Enterprise.

Before long, Sayfurahman was a star player on her own teams. At one tournament in the Bay Area, which was organized by Afghan communities across the U.S., a coach for the Afghan women’s national team scouted her. In 2016, Sayfurahman was called up to play for the team at the South Asian Football Federation Championship, which was held in India. She was 13.

“She immediately stood out,” Haley Carter, a former assistant coach of the Afghan national team, told The Enterprise. Slight in stature and the youngest of five siblings, Sayfurahman was used to taking on bigger players. She modeled her game after Andres Iniesta, the legendary Barcelona midfielder who epitomized grace under pressure. “She was tiny but fierce,” Carter said.

By the following tournament, the 2018 Central Asian Football Association Championship in Jordan, Sayfurahman, still just 15, had moved “almost into a leadership role,” Carter said, becoming vital to the team’s culture and character.   

That year, Sayfurahman’s contributions earned her a writeup on the online news site for FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, which described her as “one of several examples of players that represent a new dawn and a hope for Afghan women wanting to make it as professional footballers.”

‘Together unbreakable’

The fact that Sayfurahman had spent her life outside Afghanistan did not make her identify with the country any less. Most of her immediate family was born in Afghanistan and much of her extended family lives there. When Sayfurahman was seven years old, she was recorded on video saying she hoped to one day represent Afghanistan on the soccer field. “It was a dream,” she told The Enterprise.

Since its founding in 2007, the Afghan women’s national team, while losing many of its matches, has measured success by other metrics, playing for ideals both loftier than the score line and as basic as the game itself. “My goal is to inspire young girls to start playing soccer,” Sayfurahman told FIFA. “That’s my main goal.”

The composition of the team testified to the obstacles many of the players had overcome. When Sayfurahman was called up five years ago, about half the players lived in Afghanistan. The other half were scattered across the United States, Canada and Europe, most of their families having left Afghanistan as refugees. “The players spoke eight different languages,” Carter said, “but they all spoke Dari.”

Despite the distance separating them between tournaments, the players developed a close bond, adopting the slogan “together unbreakable” and embracing the team’s status as a symbol of a new Afghanistan. “We’re all really close to each other,” Sayfurahman told FIFA in 2018. “We all treat each other like sisters.”

In late 2018, that bond was tested by a scandal that shocked the global soccer community. Several of the team’s players based in Afghanistan alleged that administrators in the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF), including its former president Keramuddin Keram, sexually assaulted them for years.

Keram, a former warlord and provincial governor, vowed retaliation, prompting some players to withdraw their testimony. During investigations into the abuse, the team’s foreign-based coaches and players publicly backed their teammates. As a result, the AFF froze them out, declining to invite them back to the team for matches or training camps, according to Carter.

“Mika and other players sacrificed their international soccer careers to speak up for the players in Afghanistan,” she told The Enterprise.

Mika Sayfurahman, center, listens to a half-time talk with teammates during a Sept. 30 soccer match between UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara. Caleb Hampton/Enterprise photo

A team effort

While the core of the team was dissolved, the players stayed committed to each other. In August, with their teammates in hiding and the Taliban going door-to-door, it was the coaches and players exiled by the AFF who helped orchestrate an evacuation.  

Over the course of a week, Carter, former head coach Kelly Lindsey, former player and founder of the team Khalida Popal, and three human rights lawyers worked around the clock to get the players onto a flight out of Afghanistan. The group reached out to sporting and political figures, securing visas for the players from the Australian government. “Each of us played our own role,” said Carter.

A former U.S. Marine, Carter — making calls from her home in Houston — used her military contacts to get intel on where around Hamid Karzai International Airport the Taliban had set up checkpoints and through which gates the players might be able to enter the airport. “We were communicating with various military forces from different countries,” she said.

That week, images of crowds outside the Kabul airport made the front pages of newspapers around the world. While trying to get inside, the players waded through sewage and narrowly avoided gunfire. Some were beaten by the Taliban. Others had their phones stolen. “Words cannot describe what these women endured to survive,” Carter tweeted.

Throughout the evacuation, the players stayed in touch with their coaches and teammates, dropping pins on their phones to provide location updates. Carter, who was in touch with personnel inside the airport, then directed them to a particular gate or a safe place to wait. “There were nights they had to camp out outside the airport,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sayfurahman, her first season with UC Davis just underway, was receiving updates on the evacuation in a group chat with the players and coaches. “They had nowhere to go,” she said. Finally, on Aug. 24, after three days trying to enter the airport, her teammates were among a group of around 100 female athletes and their family members evacuated to Australia.  

Bittersweet

The players’ escape brought relief, but only for a moment. “I still have more than half my family in Afghanistan,” Sayfurahman said. “That’s the hardest part (about beginning her collegiate career), just knowing what’s happening in my country.”

The Taliban’s takeover also fractured the sense of purpose Sayfurahman once felt. She had hoped to inspire Afghan women to play soccer. “They can’t even go out now,” she said, “especially the ones that played soccer.”

During a tumultuous season off the field, Sayfurahman has been given time to integrate on it. After spending the start of UC Davis’ season recovering from injury, she decided to redshirt, foregoing game time this season to extend her NCAA eligibility by a year.

When she debuts for UC Davis next fall, the teenager will bring to the team experience beyond her years and a bittersweet appreciation for the game. “I’m just really grateful I can do something that I love,” Sayfurahman said.

— Owen Yancher contributed to this story. Reach Caleb Hampton at champton@davisenterprise.net. Follow him on Twitter at @calebmhampton.


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