Probe finds evacuated women’s team included ‘fake’ football players

Questions have been raised about whether all the Afghan women footballers evacuated to the UK in November 2021 were indeed members of the national team or players from regional teams.

An investigation carried out by the BBC found that while the names and other identity details about the players are genuine, the description of the principal applicants as national players or members of a regional team – in some cases – appears to be false.

The high-profile evacuation, of 35 players and their families, included a number of women who were not the top-tier players that it was claimed, the BBC was told.

BBC’s investigation team was given access to the list of evacuees that was submitted to the UK Home Office for the issuance of visas.

“While the names and other identity details are genuine, the description of the principal applicants as national players or members of a regional team – in some cases – appears to be false,” the BBC stated.

According to the report, many of the evacuees were described as members of the Herat Youth Team. However, the team’s former coach, Najibullah Nowroozi, said when he saw the list he wondered if some of the people mentioned had ever even visited the Herat football stadium.

The BBC spoke to a number of former Afghan players, coaches and officials who identified 13 individuals who they believed were not members of the teams listed.

Fingers have been pointed at the Rokit Foundation which was involved in organizing the evacuation. Siu Anne Gill, who runs the charity, however blamed former Afghan international player and campaigner Khalida Popal for the issue and also stated that UK officials failed to check credentials of the women footballers when they boarded the flight from Pakistan in November of 2021.

Gill told BBC: “Khalida Popal personally had been including more names and more names and more names. We asked Khalida, ‘Did you check that these are footballers?’ She said ‘Yes, they’re definitely footballers.'”

According to the BBC, Popal, who runs a charity called Girl Power which works to empower women through sport, said she didn’t knowingly help non-footballers to claim asylum through the scheme. She in turn blamed the Rokit Foundation for removing some names and adding others. 

Rokit acknowledged however that they added some names to the list, but said this was done in agreement with Popal.

In a statement to the BBC, Popal said: “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 UK Home Office meanwhile told the BBC that should there be evidence that the information was false, an investigation into the matter will be launched. 

In August 2021, following the takeover of the country by the Taliban, former team captain Khalida Popal, who was based in Denmark at the time, urged players to delete their social media accounts, erase public identities and burn their kits for safety sake.

The International Federation of Professional Footballers (FIFPRO) and Popal worked with authorities in six countries, including the UK, Australia and the US, to get athletes and their families out of Afghanistan. Early last year, the Afghanistan women’s national team were able to regroup in Australia and after securing a partnership with A-League club Melbourne Victory, they were able to continue operating and training at the Darebin International Sports Centre.