Former Afghan soccer star faces increased threats from president

In an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, Khalida Popal, a former Afghan soccer star who has publicly accused President Ashraf Ghani of voting against her in a bid to gain national goodwill, says she faces increasing threats on her life. Popal was in Washington for the World Anti-Doping Agency’s conference on sports and doping, where she hopes to lobby for better controls to prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

AP: President Ashraf Ghani sent you back to Kabul from Abu Dhabi last year despite an outcry by the public and your own team that he had sided with a powerful coalition political group that opposes you. What do you hope from this trip to Washington, D.C.?

Popal: I want President Ghani to respect Afghanistan’s supreme rule, the constitution. The constitution says a sports team must be the work of the people and respected. I want him to see and hear that I, Khalida Popal, love my country and its people, that my only focus is the noble work I’m doing and being part of this sports team is an honorable act.

AP: You’ve accused the president of trying to gain favor with the coalition, which is backing your main rival Abdullah Abdullah. How did that hurt you?

Popal: I was part of the Afghan Olympic committee and he (Ghani) appointed (former president Hamid) Karzai to be the Olympic committee chief, because we have many good sportsmen in the National Solidarity Program, the government’s grass-roots project, at the same time he appointed Abdullah Abdullah to head the council. I think the president wanted to select the two leaders who are supporters of his war effort, in the elections that are planned next month.

AP: Is there any domestic violence going on in your family?

Popal: No, absolutely not. No one in my family has ever done that to me.

AP: Do you have any problems at the club in Afghanistan?

Popal: There are lots of threats, because I try to maintain the integrity of the club. As you know, the Taliban are the only government in Afghanistan who directly opposes the club. They are known to be fanatical about sports and they keep going to the stadium to watch matches. The other goal is to stop me from attending soccer games, and I have been threatened because I went to the government stadium in Kabul to play my last match.

AP: What is next for you?

Popal: I am going back to my home country and my family there and then I will travel to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the first one to realize that my life is in danger. I have a really big mission of reaching the top players in the world and lifting the reputation of women in sports in Afghanistan. I’m from Kabul and there is not a day that passes by when I see a fight on a highway between two women. This is not a big joke to me. I’m not laughing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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