KABUL – On a yellowing football pitch, next to concrete walls and razor wire, World Cup fever is running high for Afghan women footballers who dream of scoring for their war-torn country.
Training sessions may be interrupted by US helicopters landing, but the women play hard, tackling each other to the ground under the scorching summer sun.
“If anybody does that to me again, I’ll do it to her,” shouts one of the players after coming down in a tackle.
“Why are you laughing?” yells another at her teammates. “We have to be serious and exercise seriously.”
Afghanistan is not likely to compete in a World Cup any time soon but its women’s side trains fiercely in the heat, wearing headscarfs, track suits and long sleeves that cover everything except hands and faces.
Wearing shorts in Afghanistan is taboo. A few of the more daring players have swapped Muslim veils for baseball caps as they train next to the NATO headquarters in Kabul, nerve centre of a nine-year fight against the Taliban.
With the World Cup under way in South Africa, Hadisa Wali isn’t missing a second of the action. She predicts victory for Brazil but her football hero is Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid’s star Portuguese midfielder.
Her favourite female players are Brazil’s Marta Vieria da Silva and Germany’s Birgit Prinz, two stars of international women’s football.
Teammate Khalida Popal calls football “a passion” but a struggle for women, who were forbidden from sport and all public activities, including going to school, under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime.
“It’s hard to play football here,” she explains. Aged 20, she is one of the oldest players in a young Afghan team. She watches recruits shooting at the goal, clad in T-shirts bearing the image of President Hamid Karzai.
“Some families refuse, they say this is not for girls,” she says. “Others don’t like it that we go abroad without our families.”
In 2007, the women’s team started to travel, playing in Germany, Jordan and Pakistan.
“Sometimes, it just makes me cry. You have to fight to continue to play. It’s just like the Americans who fight against the Taliban,” she says.
Under the post-Taliban Afghan constitution, women are equal to men and a handful have competed in overseas competitions, mostly in martial arts events.
But women’s groups say they remain the most marginalised and underprivileged group in the country, subject to violence and discrimination in the name of Afghan tradition. The war is another hindrance.
“Normally they warn us, but this time they’ve forgotten,” says Wali, bending over to protect herself from the powerful downdraft as a Black Hawk has just set down on the grass.
Due to safety concerns in Kabul, where Taliban suicide attacks are on the rise and where facilities are few, women play on ground attached to the general headquarters of the 142,000-strong foreign military in Afghanistan.
When the aircraft take off, training can resume. In red jerseys and football boots, the teenagers run drills under the watchful eye of their trainer, the only man to be seen.
Kawsaz Amine, 16, came to watch. She feels sick so is not playing, listening to pop star Shakira’s World Cup hit on her mobile phone.
Like her sister, who also plays in the national team, she was brought up with a passion for “The Beautiful Game”.
“My father was footballer, my uncle too. They are very happy that I play in national team,” Amine says.
For her, Argentina are well placed to win the World Cup. Her favourite player and inspiration is Argentine star striker Lionel Messi.
“I want to become the Messi of Afghanistan,” she says with a huge smile.