Small crowd, big hopes for Afghan women’s football league
The final scoreline read Kabul 5 - Herat 1, but for the players and noisy supporters who cheered them on, women's football was the biggest winner at the climax of Afghanistan's first female sport's league.
Empty stands at Kabul's 6,000 seat all-weather stadium failed to diminish the enthusiasm of the hundred or so spectators urging on their teams, in a country where women were rarely allowed to leave their homes under the Taliban's oppressive rule.
The ground-breaking four-team league was held recently in parallel with the Afghan Premier League (APL), a competitive and well-established men's event now in its third year.
“I came here to support my team because football is not only for men,” said Waheeda Bahrami, 17, a high-school student in Kabul, wearing the yellow replica shirt of her team and waving pictures of the players.
“Backing the girls is so important for us. Football is good for health and we need to show girl power.”
“Kabul! Kabul!” chanted the supporters in the stands, almost all young women.
Players meanwhile wore black head-scarves and full leggings to adhere to the country's conservative Muslim culture in the trophy clash between the home side and western Herat.
Even 13 years after the fall of the Taliban, gender segregation remains sharp in Afghan life, with women in cities and rural areas often wearing the all-encompassing burqa when they venture out of the house.
“I feel sad. Most of the families don't allow women to come watch football,” said Najeela Bayat, 35, who attended the game with her husband and 10-year-old son.
“We had problems at the gate. They wouldn't allow my husband to come in. They told me only I could go in. But we insisted.”
The Bayat family, eating chips as they enjoyed the match, live in Kabul but are originally from Herat in western Afghanistan.
“My husband told me that Herat was going to have a football game so we came. Watching this game is amazing to me. I'm lucky to be here,” said Bayat.
“Of course it's difficult because most of the women in Afghanistan have problems with their families who do not want them to play.”
Nasir Ahmadzai, press officer for the APL, said the match was a symbol of progress for women, and denied there was a ban on men attending the fixture.
“They're allowed, it's just the level of interest that is a problem,” he said. “We wanted as big a turnout as possible. We've advertised on TV, put it on social media. It's the best turnout we've had for a women's game. Hopefully it will improve next year.”
On the pitch, the star player was Madina Azizi, 19, agricultural student and striker for Kabul, who scored four goals.
“My family never told me not to play, they encouraged me. Here there is war, suicide attacks, everything. When I play football I forget everything,” she said.
“I think the future for women's football here is bright, if we work hard.”
Frozan Tajali, 21, the Kabul team captain and member of the national team, said she had battled against people who disapproved of women playing football.
“At the beginning my family didn't want to let me play,” she said.
“But then when they understood I could play well, they encouraged me. As a captain, I also train the other girls, a lot of them play well. But unfortunately, they don't always show up because of family pressure.”