An Afghan refugee women’s team is training to compete in its first domestic Australian football season in Melbourne.
The athletes have been reunited after fleeing Kabul last August.
Melbourne Victory is helping the players prepare for their first matches in March.
“We’re carrying the baton from a lot of great work that’s gone over the past few months,” said Victory’s director of football, John Didulica.
“It’s what they really want to do to make their mark globally, to assert their independence through participation in football.
“That hasn’t been easy because they’ve got family back in Afghanistan, and they’re fearful for the fate of those family members.
The team’s quality is being assessed; Football Victoria is likely to enter the squad in a state league division two or three competition.
“It’s wonderful,” goalkeeper Fati said (players asked ABC Sport to use their nicknames to protect their privacy).
“We have the most important thing for all of us – we have security, we have sport, we don’t have our families, but at least we have the thing we didn’t have in Afghanistan.
“My teammates, including me, we’re all forgetting everything.
“Being on the field, it’s like everything is new. We are thinking about the future. We are all making our homes. We are all together now, and one day we will be with our families too, and that’s the hope.”
Another player, Moslih, said it was a relief to get back into training.
“Actually, after six months, it’s an amazing feeling and I can’t explain it,” she said.
“My teammate is a sign of my country and when I play with my teammates it looks like that I’m playing in my country.”
The newcomers were welcomed to a training session this week by A-League stars Catherine Zimmerman and Alex Chidiac.
“I feel really proud to be a part of a club that is going out of their way to help these footballers,” Chidiac said.
“To be able to come into Australia and feel welcome and be able to play the sport they love.
“It is really special. And it makes us, as professionals, step back and think how grateful we are to be able to play the game that we love every day. To see their determination to get back on the pitch after all they’ve been through, and, you know, you see the unity as well – it’s just amazing.
A full schedule of matches within an established competition will be difficult to organise because the players have been resettled into outer suburbs all over the city, from northern Sunshine to south-eastern Dandenong.
But Victory and Football Victoria say they will help make it happen.
“They’re trying to find permanent homes, they’re trying to get education, they’re trying to find employment.
“There’s a whole range of challenges they have to navigate over the next few months now. They’re got their freedom, for lack of a better term, and now they’re looking to integrate into Australian life.
“There’s a lot of parallels, from my perspective, with a lot of the migrant cultures that came to Australia post-World War II, where they used sport – football – to go on that journey about understanding what it means to be Australian.”
Not all of Afghanistan’s best players came to Australia.
“There’s a number of cohorts spread through the world, in England, throughout Europe, here in Australia, and they do want to reclaim the title of the Afghan national women’s team. That’s been taken away from them.
“There’s a lot of lobbying of FIFA and others to gain that status but this is the first step in what could be a long journey for them.”
The football community, including former Afghanistan captain Khalida Popal and ex-Socceroo Craig Foster, helped rescue the footballers from Kabul last August.
The Australian Government gave humanitarian protection to dozens of athletes.