AWT’s Fatima: Accidental goalkeeper overcomes barriers to lead Afghan side

Afghanistan Women’s Team captain Fatima Yousufi admits to being a “very accidental” goalkeeper.

Other girls at school roped her into first play when she was almost in the 10th grade.

“When they asked me I thought maybe just a game, just to play with the girls and have fun,” Yousufi said.

She had already been exposed to the game through her little brother who was a massive fan of European leagues. Time spent waiting to watch the tv exposed her to players like Messi tearing it up for Barcelona. 

“Somehow I was obsessed too,” she said.

“But again, I thought women couldn’t do that. It was in my head, women are not going to play soccer or any other game. And then I watched those games with my brother, I got some techniques or skills in my head from watching.”

Those ideas, Yousufi said, were put into action when she shyly joined the field on that fateful day. Her schoolmates praised her skill and while Yousufi said she didn’t understand when they talked about playing for a club at the time, further opportunity beckoned.

A school teacher hunting for players to play in a tournament was her next chance to play.

Yousufi said initially she wasn’t sure what her family would think of her playing soccer, however with the support of her mum she committed to the training and tournaments.

“Somehow I organised with my mum to hide it from my dad, and he didn’t know about it,” she said.

“So I went into the tournaments for a long time hiding the training.”

She said the tournament was her first time as a goalkeeper, where she was scouted by a national team coach. Yousufi cited the fact she was taller than other keepers, and most of the national team, as the reason she stood out to the coaches.

She didn’t accept the first national team invite, saying she was deterred because of her dad not knowing.

Yousufi said her mum covered for her, finding excuses for her absence such as studying courses.

She said parents in Afghanistan were wary of their daughters playing soccer because of security threats such as bomb explosions or robbery.

“Afghanistan as a Muslim country, most people think about women – they are considered the hijab – so much is strict about it and it’s so religious,” she said.

“But somehow I made it to the trials but I wasn’t accepted because I wasn’t good. 

“There were all these difficulties because I lied to my parents, especially my dad. I hid it, I went to the trials, and again I failed so football is not for me.”

Eight months later, Yousufi heard the coaches were asking her to trial again and through the encouragement of one teammate she returned. That time she made it.

For a few months, she continued to hide from her dad that she was playing with the help of her mum, however did end up telling him.

“I was making sure that I will do my responsibility in a good way, I was so honest in what I was doing,” Yousufi said.

Making the national team only fed her obsession as she took any opportunity to learn from videos of other goalkeepers, learn training drills, physio and nutrition tips.

In Afghanistan, Yousufi said she had to drive a lot of her development, such as training schedules and physio because access to those things wasn’t readily available.

“Comparing Australia to Afghanistan, it’s so different,” she said.

“As a team having lots of stuff for the team to help them prepare for the games.”

Those differences were on top of security concerns, such as needing to wear a hijab. She remembered a time training where she was wearing a hijab with only her eyes visible, and dealing with heat while being fully covered.

Yousufi is now in Australia playing with the national team having escaped the Taliban in August 2021.

She said she was worried when the team first arrived in Australia whether they would ever play together again out of fear a club wouldn’t want an already formed team.

The support of Melbourne Victory to keep them together, Yousufi said, was “massive”.

“For our team it’s much more like family, whether it’s training or a game, we’re enjoying it as family too,” Yousufi said.

“Thinking about it, we are together again. We don’t have anyone else but our team. No family, no one else.”

She said the team supported each other and provided community, especially when it had been difficult making friends off the pitch in Australia.

“The fun part for me or my teammate is whenever we’re together it’s the best time.”

Having fun has only been reinforced by Melbourne Victory coach Jeff Hopkins in their first season playing in Victoria.

Yousufi said the biggest lesson she learnt from the gaffa was to enjoy the game.

“It means a lot for me, because I said to myself – this is the thing we should’ve had while in Afghanistan; to enjoy the game and don’t pressure yourself too much,” she said.

She said games where fun was prioritised, winning, scoring and saving goals often followed, and she said it’s something she shared with her team.

Yousufi is driven to win and has a championship in sight this season. A strong start to the season had only reinforced that hunger.