12-year-old Afghan football star returns home

(CNN) — It’s quite a story. Khalida Popal was a popular soccer player in her native Afghanistan, with an impressive scoring record for the country’s national team. Known for her speed and skill on…

12-year-old Afghan football star returns home

(CNN) — It’s quite a story.

Khalida Popal was a popular soccer player in her native Afghanistan, with an impressive scoring record for the country’s national team.

Known for her speed and skill on the pitch, she captained the country in her heyday and also represented the country in the 2011 Women’s World Cup.

To her former teammates, she was a “Khalida” — meaning “little one” in Farsi — respected for her “maturity, wisdom and warm personality.”

But in 2001, Popal, like so many Afghan women, was taken by surprise when she saw men gather in the streets. She and her husband left her four children with relatives as they fled across the border to Pakistan.

Popal and her former teammates are making a living on their own in Dubai, Dubai, Dubai. Jamshed Majeed

‘Today, I’m ashamed’

In 2004, Popal contacted her former teammates and asked them if they had heard any news about her. After much coaxing, they confirmed that they had moved into Pakistan and were becoming quite successful.

Pakistan was then under military rule and Afghanistan’s Taliban had invaded the country in 1996. The Taliban banned girls’ education and enforced strict segregation. Many Afghans had fled their homes, escaping horrific circumstances.

Fast forward 13 years and Popal has now decided to come forward.

“My time is finished and I ask people to forgive me for hurting my people,” she tells CNN. “Today, I’m ashamed of myself for not living a life of a good Muslim and for letting my men lead me down.

“I let my men live like we said, with women, with our children.”

She calls herself a modern-day Zainab, a nickname given to women in Afghanistan who joined the Taliban as they fought the Soviet invasion of the country.

The Taliban had banned most education, radio and television in Afghanistan. After the Soviets left, they helped govern the country.

At first, Popal participated in sporadic training sessions in the 1990s — outside Afghanistan.

Waking up in the morning was hard for Popal and her family. They had left their winter clothes in Afghanistan to take their daughters to school.

Soon, however, her teammates pressured her to return.

Today, Popal still lives in the UAE, Dubai, Dubai, with her family.

Young daughters

“I have not started earning money myself but we have three boys and we rent out a room in our house,” she tells CNN.

“We are not in Afghanistan.”

In a country where few girls go to school, Popal says that her children are educationally — and physically — protected.

“I have young daughters and they look after us and we look after them.

“We don’t want them to face the security threats that any woman or girl does in Afghanistan.”

The only thing the family has in Afghanistan is a few possessions.

“We are waiting for the elections to be on December 20,” Popal says. “I am an Afghan and when they return, I will be proud to go back.”

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