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'Symbolic' Afghanistan national women’s soccer team gives a voice for the voiceless on and off the pitch in Melbourne

Afghanistan women's soccer team finds its voice in Australia

More than 11,000 kilometres from Kabul, Afghanistan National Women's players have returned to their beloved game of football. 

The scene was set. An autumn afternoon in Melbourne at the start of May, with rays of hope from the sun peeking through the clouds at a suburban park, far from the lights of bigger stadiums.

Separated from families where girls can't attend school, Afghanistan's highest-profile women's sporting team has started its first season nine months after seeking asylum in Australia.

Human Rights Advocate and former Socceroos captain Craig Foster has been helping guide the women in their relocation to play in Victoria's State League Division 4 West under the banner of the Melbourne Victory Afghan Women's Team.

"Teams like this wonderful team from Afghanistan are incredibly important because they represent tens of thousands of refugees who don't have a voice," Foster said.

Former Socceroos captain and human rights advocate Craig Foster says the team can heal through playing in Australia. (ABC Sport: Damien Peck)

"They know that every time they kick a ball here, every time they score a goal, every time they even take to the field with a smile and enjoy their basic right to playing sport, they're striking a blow for all women and girls in Afghanistan. They're striking a blow for women's rights all around the world."

There's so much more at stake for these women than winning football, having given up so much to relocate their livelihood for an opportunity just to play at what's now considered a home away from home.

"The fact that they are football players … through sport, it gives them the opportunity to tell their story," Foster said.

"It gives them the opportunity to speak to Australians. And as we come to know and love this team, we can also then consider better what it is that we're doing to other refugees.

"So this team is incredibly symbolic, of so much that Australia needs to change."

Foster, along with Football Victoria, A-Leagues national champions Melbourne Victory and a vast network of supporters have helped create an environment for the women and girls to integrate with Australian life on and off the field.

"These women and girls, along with all of the vast majority of other Afghans who came, came without families, they fled under circumstances where there simply wasn't enough visas to go around.

The team started its season alongside Melbourne Victory, nine months after fleeing Kabul. (ABC Sport: Damien Peck)

"Those two entities (Melbourne Victory and Afghan NWT) are creating something incredibly important here, not just for these women or women's rights around the world, but actually for Australia's future of accepting and understanding and being humane towards all refugees."

More than 11,000 kilometres from home, national pride remains for the Afghanistan National Women's Team. (ABC Sport: Damien Peck)

The unbreakable bond for Afghanistan's sisterhood

Playing out of a pitch at the aptly named Ron Barassi Senior Park — named for someone who was killed in action in Tobruk while risking his life and inspiring others — the side has stuck together where they can to make the most of their new opportunities.

For this group of Afghan women and girls, rather than relocate separately, forming a stronger sisterhood binds a big part of the comforts of home.

Defender Mursal says despite missing loved ones at home in Afghanistan, she can be a voice for those who can't speak out. (ABC Sport: Damien Peck)

Mursal, a defender, said the most challenging part was feeling the effects of separation from loved ones.

"The most challenging thing is [our families] that we're by ourselves. We have to study as well, we have to work to support our families back in Afghanistan," Mursal said.

"When you have your family, they're the first supporter of you in every situation. If you're bad or you're good, they'll say, 'it's OK, next time.'

"The soccer pitch is the only place where we can forget everything such as those bad experiences we had in airports or in Afghanistan. We can forget we don't have our families as well.

Mursal knows as long as she's playing on the pitch with her teammates, they can continue to speak out for those who can't.

"We can be a voice for those who are voiceless in Afghanistan. We can fight for their law," she said.

"We want to tell the world, please support women in Afghanistan. Every woman in Afghanistan has their own talents and they're so talented if you give them some opportunities.

"I love my country, I love Afghanistan and I hope one day our country will be free and all girls can improve and they will have their own choice."

Backup goalkeeper Montaha hopes her family can join her in Australia.  (ABC Sport: Damien Peck)

Backup goalkeeper Montaha maintained hope that her family would one day be able to share the freedoms on offer in Australia.

"Most of us are upset because our families are also in Afghanistan. Most of our girls are here only by themselves. It's really hard for them.

"I'm missing my family. They're still in Afghanistan and they're not here to support me anymore.

"We hope that they'll also come here and one day they will be here with us." 

The players gave up their livelihoods to seek asylum in Australia. (ABC Sport: Damien Peck)

Melbourne Victory giving the team 'everything possible'

Perhaps it's appropriate the team plays beneath the Bolte Bridge; iconic for connecting Melbourne's communities.

Jeff Hopkins, manager of the A-League Women's champions Melbourne Victory, has taken on a broader commitment to lead the team, and says the club is trying its best to support the women and girls on and off the pitch.

The Afghanistan National Women's Team celebrates a goal.  (ABC Sport: Damien Peck)

"What's great about them is they're really committed to each other, they're really committed to the team," Hopkins said.

"You can see by their performance; they want to get out there and they want to win, which is great.

"We're trying to give them everything possible that we give our A-League women's team.

Melbourne Victory women's manager Jeff Hopkins has taken the reins with the Afghanistan National Women's Team. (ABC Sport: Damien Peck)

Putting the players alongside Australia's elite, Melbourne Victory director of football John Didulica said it was important to change the way Australians perceive refugees and asylum seekers.

"We need to put these women on a pedestal. One of the sensibilities that tends to thread its way through our treatment of asylum seekers and refugees is to put them at the back of the line, get the leftovers, last to the buffet," Didulica said.

"What we wanted to do was invert that and make sure that the courage, the determination, the bravery of not just these women, but asylum seekers everywhere can be recognised and actually put to the front of the queue. No longer at the back."

John Didulica says his club has put the team at the front of the queue by providing the "best possible program".  (ABC Sport: Damien Peck)

The team's return to the world stage remains unclear, though, with FIFA yet to allow the side to compete as an international team in exile.

"We wanted to provide them with the best possible program that we could so that they can again reach that aspiration of playing on the international stage, which is what we want to do," Didulica said.

"The entire football community should be proud that we're capable of delivering these sorts of opportunities for the most vulnerable members of the community.

"It's the bedrock of why we are such an incredibly successful multicultural nation. Football's ability to create a safe space for these communities, but then get them working with other communities cohesively around putting on games like today is the hallmark of what football's brought to this country.

Celebrations are all part of the fun on the field for Nilab after scoring goals. (ABC Sport: Damien Peck)

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