Bend it like Maryam: Female Afghan footballer scores before Taliban injury time to start new life in Italy

Football Afghanistan
7 min read
18 November, 2022
The New Arab Meets: Afghan footballer Maryam Mehrzad, whose love for 'the beautiful game' turned out to be her salvation in a country where women caught playing football could result in being assaulted or even kidnapped by the Taliban.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, Maryam Mehrzad knew she was a target.

The then 23-year-old had broken every rule in the Taliban’s book: she played for Afghanistan’s top female football team, taught women how to drive and had enrolled in university. Worse still, she used social media to promote sports for women, garnering the attention of national and international media.

Interviews
Live Story

Though the media exposure endangered her life, it would be a documentary made by an Italian journalist which would lead her to escape route.

"Most families were against girls leaving the home to go to school, let alone play sports"

Over a year after her arrival in Florence, we sit immersed in the Tuscan countryside, nestled next to an olive grove and the hills overlooking the city.

Over 3,350 miles away from her native Herat in Western Afghanistan, the stunning and bucolic backdrop creates a jarring contrast with her story.

A smart and determined defender on the pitch, Maryam discovered football by chance. She had been practising Taekwondo in a makeshift training facility for two years, spurred by a family member who was a martial arts instructor and believed they could blaze a trail for women.

"I started playing football six or seven years ago when I knew nothing about the sport because the team needed a player to compete during a tournament," she tells The New Arab.

She was immediately hooked. Supported by an open-minded family, she played alongside her beloved sister, Zeynab.

"Playing football makes you feel strong," she says. "It gives you faith in life: every time you fall, you need to get up and keep powering on."

Determined to recruit other women, Maryam intensified her activity on Facebook and Instagram. National media interviews soon meant Bastan could reach a wide audience.

"Most families were against girls leaving the home to go to school, let alone play sports," she says, explaining how young women would arm themselves with the teams’ interviews to prove they could train privately. Though some were successful, others would resort to sneaking out or seeing their dreams slashed.

Society
Live Story

Safety, not just propriety, was a concern.

"Visible women of society or those who played sport would be kidnapped, assaulted or attacked with acid," Maryam says.  

"I was lucky nothing happened to me, but we would be threatened in the streets and given ultimatums to stop going out, playing football or going to university."

Zeynab however was trapped: she had married a man who had promised her freedom but became violent and joined the Taliban soon after their wedding. Segregated at home, Zeynab could no longer play football. 

Her two brothers were also kidnapped and beaten. Both returned home, but the eldest made it back with a mouth full of broken teeth.

"In a way, you could say we had grown used to the lack of safety," Maryam says.

Despite violence becoming woven into the fabric of everyday life, Maryam persisted.

By the time the Taliban took over, Bastan Football Club had become one of Afghanistan's most prominent female teams. Bastan had also beaten Italy’s female military football team.

Society
Live Story

Just when Maryam thought progress had been made, Afghanistan’s two warring factions suddenly went quiet.  "It was clear that the country had been sold. What nobody knew was the Taliban were going to take over," Maryam says.

All their progress was suddenly obliterated. Players rushed to delete social media.

As soon as news broke that the Taliban had taken over the country, the players contacted Stefano Liberti, who in 2017 had released the documentary Bastan Football Club with colleague Mario Poeta. "You cannot tell my story without Stefano, he is so important to us," she insists. 

Working with the Italian non-profit organisation COSPE, Stefano Liberti acted as a bridge between the team and the Italian authorities.

"On August 24, the Italian government gave us the green light and I went to Kabul the same day," she reveals.

Concealed under a burqa, Maryam, Zeynab and Zeynab's young daughter fled Herat.

Kabul airport was engulfed in panicked chaos. It is there that the sisters discovered Zeynab’s husband was holding their family ransom. Faced with no other choice, Zeynab returned to Herat with her daughter.

"It was a terrible situation because the country was in chaos, my family was in danger, and we were alone," Maryam says. The pain of those around her became her own. "There were people everywhere and they would beg us for help as we were pulled up in the aeroplanes… it is then that I broke down, screaming and crying."

"Visible women of society or those who played sport would be kidnapped, assaulted or attacked with acid"

Maryam barely knew where she was going.  

Supported by COSPE and a joint initiative between Caritas, a catholic charity, and the European University Institute in Florence, Maryam started a new life.

"Everything was so different: the culture, the development, people’s behaviour, the clothes, the food, the traditions." Within a few days life as she knew it was gone. The thick fog induced by the intense shock obfuscated Florence's winding renaissance streets. 

Agonising over her family, Maryam quickly made a vow: "Maryam, you need to think that you were born today, you must start a new life and make great progress because Afghanistan might have segregationist laws, but here, women are free and our goals are within reach."

Maryam's goals are clear: to reunite her family and play football.

Home to the Azzurri, Italy’s national football team and four-time World Cup winner, a few Italian cities are as significant for football as Florence.

"We were invited twice to visit the headquarters in Coverciano and we met important players, like Sara Gama, the captain of the Italian female football team," Maryam says.

Soon enough, she had joined two teams: Florence City Football Club and the Mad Cows, the European University Institute’s amateur football team.

Made up of researchers, staff members and locals, the Mad Cows train on the Institute's grounds. It is an astounding outcome for a woman who, only a few months earlier, was threatened for her love for football and had to give up on university.  

She lights up at any mention of the Mad Cows. "I do not make friends easily and I was worried the language would be a problem," she says. "But they immediately became like a family."

The experience also dissipated her fears about unlearning what she calls ‘Afghan football’, football warped by the lack of basic infrastructure.

Society
Live Story

"Every moment with the Mad Cows is sweet and significant," she says, proudly telling me how she scored the winning score in a recent game.

With football marking the rhythm of her life once again, Maryam started speaking at events on women’s rights. As she toured Italy, she navigated a maze of international bureaucracy with her allies, fending off fatigue.

On the day of our interview, she was more sombre than usual. A fellow Afghan refugee had moved abroad in search of new opportunities. Her sadness was palpable. 

As we sat under a sky of brilliant blue, I asked her if she was ok.

A smile flashed on her face: "I am sad, but I am also tired because last night I could not sleep – I found out that most of my family will now be arriving by the end of the month."

Suddenly, the terse blue sky seemed a little less out of place.

Adriana Urbano is a British-Italian multimedia journalist, with experience ranging from human rights and organised crime to academic research. 

Follow her on Twitter: @G_AdrianaUrbano