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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Afghan women’s football team evacuated to UK may include fraudulent non-players
LONDON: A number of women evacuated from Afghanistan to the UK may not have been the elite football players they claimed to be, an investigation has found.
Thirty-five women who made up the Afghan national women’s team and an additional 95 relatives arrived in the UK in November 2021 after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban two months earlier.
A BBC investigation has since learned that up to 13 players who claimed to be part of the national team may have lied on their visa applications, which were all approved by the Home Office.
The allegations concern players who claimed to be members of Afghanistan’s Herat youth team. Najibullah Nowroozi, the team’s former coach, told the BBC’s “Newsnight” program: “I have seen people in the list (of evacuees) who have not even worn a football strip in Herat.”
The national team’s captain, Sabriah Nawrouzi, said that she only met some of her supposed teammates for the first time while awaiting evacuation in Pakistan.
Nawrouzi added that when the team arrived in the UK, she had to separate the players into two teams “because one team couldn’t play football.”
The Taliban banned female participation in sport after it retook power in Afghanistan — and there is resentment among other top-tier female footballers who were unable to escape the country that some may have lied about their ability in order to secure safe passage.
One anonymous female footballer still in Afghanistan told the BBC: “The Taliban have banned sports for women and girls. We are left behind in Afghanistan with no future. It just makes me feel very neglected and very sad because we are the real players and not some of those that got evacuated.”
Siu Anne Gill, a campaigner whose organization the Rokit Foundation was involved in the evacuation, said the Home Office relied on credentials supplied by former Afghan international player Khalida Popal.
“Khalida Popal personally had been including more names and more names and more names,” Gill told the BBC. “We asked Khalida, ‘Did you check that these are footballers?’ She said, ‘Yes, they’re definitely footballers.’”
Popal, who heads a nonprofit called Girl Power, told the BBC in a statement: “I categorically deny the allegations directed at me. I have repeatedly provided extensive evidence and explanations about why any suggestion that I had any formal role in verification and/or knowingly misled anyone about the identities of those evacuated is wrong.”
The Home Office said in a statement: “Their love of football put these women and girls at risk from the Taliban. We are proud that members of the Afghan Girls Development Squad and their family members were brought to safety in the UK.”
A spokesperson added: “We worked with a number of organizations who identified and referred the group to us, undertaking security checks as part of the process. Should there be evidence that the information provided was incorrect, the Home Office will investigate.”
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