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Afghanistan: Women's Soccer Wins Support In First Games Abroad

Afghan women's soccer team flies the national flag after beating Pakistan's Baluchistan team on August 22 (AFP) August 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's first all-women's national soccer team is to be ranked by world soccer's governing body, FIFA, after its first series of games abroad.

The Afghan women play in the final of a tournament in Pakistan today and then have three games next week against Pakistan's national team.

Playing as guests this week in the Women's National Soccer League tournament in Pakistan, the Afghan national women's team advanced to today's final in Islamabad by winning three out of five qualifying games.

The team includes schoolgirls in their early teens who would be eligible to play in youth leagues in many countries.

Delighting Fans

Women's sports competitions are frowned upon by conservative Islamists in the region that spawned the Taliban, but that hasn't dampened the spirits of the Afghan players or their supporters.

Hundreds of Afghan refugees who live in Pakistan turned out this week to cheer for the Afghan girls -- some of whom wear head scarves along with their red jerseys and full-length trousers.

When the Afghan women scored their go-ahead goal against Balochistan to qualify for today's final in Islamabad, the Afghan fans jumped to their feet and chanted "Long live Afghanistan!"

The coach of the Afghan team, Abdul Saboor Walizadah, is responsible for organizing women's soccer after the fall of the Taliban regime. He says he is thrilled about the performance of a team whose players had no previous international soccer experience.

The Big Time

In fact, Walizadah tells RFE/RL that most of the Afghan team had never played on a regulation-sized soccer field before the tournament in Pakistan.

"These games are important for the Afghan women's soccer team because it is the first time these women are playing a game outside of the country and in Pakistan," Walizadah says. "On one hand, our team didn't have any international experience. On the other hand, most of the games we play in Afghanistan have either been indoors or were not played on a full-sized pitch."

Walizadah says the lack of experience for the Afghan women is not a result of security concerns for female athletes. Rather, he says, war-torn Afghanistan simply doesn't have the sports infrastructure to support the women's game.

"We don't have any particular [security] problems with playing outdoors," Walizadah says. "But in Kabul, we don't have a lot of full-sized pitches. The National Stadium in Kabul is busy with the [men's] soccer league. And sometimes the [men's] national team is practicing there. We didn't want to suddenly put the women there on a full-sized pitch. So we let them start playing soccer games on smaller pitches."

Multiple Opponents

Walizadah says some conservative Afghan government officials have tried to prevent the women's team from playing or traveling abroad.

"In Afghanistan, there have been problems for women's soccer," Walizadah says. "Before we came to Pakistan, there were some people who were creating barriers for the women's team. There even have been some sports officials in Afghanistan who were not interested in allowing the women to play games abroad."

After the tournament final, sports officials in Islamabad will select the best Pakistani players from the league to create Pakistan's first all-women's national soccer team. That team will play three games against the Afghan women on August 26, 27, and 29.

Observers from soccer's international governing body, FIFA, are to attend those games and give both the Afghan and Pakistani teams a ranking among women's teams from around the world.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Omid Marzban contributed to this story from Prague)

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