Written by Staff Writer by By Brittany Carney, CNN
With the clock ticking towards her 40th birthday, Afghan soccer star Khalida Popal is excited to reflect on the life and times that shaped her.
An inspirational figure for many Afghans, Popal is well known for her leadership skills — which she credits to the resilience of her country.
Khalida Popal in the streets of Kabul, circa 2007. Credit: Courtesy Khalida Popal/ Facebook
“My optimism for Afghanistan has not changed and I keep believing that in the future my country will be a better place and everything is in the hands of God,” she said.
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To achieve her dream, Popal is now on a new mission: to combat domestic instability and to connect the country to the outside world, both through words and through sport.
“I want my beloved country to be represented at the highest level,” she said. “I want to be the symbol of hope for the world.”
As the 2014 World Cup comes to a close, Popal’s purpose is clear: to help her nation keep the dream alive.
Her journey to international stardom began in the early 90s, when Popal was just 16-years-old. Although she didn’t play soccer for long, Popal quickly won the hearts of the crowds in her hometown of Kabul and on the streets of the Afghan capital, with her brand of confidence and optimism.
Khalida Popal is driven by a desire to promote women’s rights in Afghanistan. Credit: Courtesy Khalida Popal/ Facebook
Popal attributes her strong determination to the fact that she was born in the midst of war. Her parents were married in her father’s own home, and, like so many Afghans, they had to improvise when the Taliban took power in 1994.
“After the war we didn’t have a choice,” she said. “My parents did whatever they could and nobody wanted to send us to schools, because it was against their culture.
“I’m very happy in my country and I had to work on myself to achieve my ambition,” she said.
A meeting of minds
An ardent believer in empowering Afghan women, Popal has worked closely with other women in sports to help unite the country. One such initiative is an initiative that she and her sister Ajmal Popal started in 2014, called Play for Change.
Khalida Popal brings up her daughter Samira on the summit. Credit: Courtesy Khalida Popal/ Facebook
The group runs sports camps throughout Afghanistan, and Popal hopes that playing matches against women from other towns will be a chance for Afghans to broaden their perspectives.
With the aim of educating the average Afghan’s children about other cultures, the group plans to take young Afghan children on a tour of other countries across the globe as part of its mission.
Popal believes that education is the key to keeping Afghanistan at the center of international attention — a key message that she shared during a recent visit to a Google Science Fair, which took place in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Khalida Popal and some young Afghan children pose in front of two tanks. Credit: Courtesy Khalida Popal/ Facebook
She said that although she has received hate mail from some quarters of the country for advocating children’s education, it’s a reality that needs to be addressed.
“When my children go to school, when I play football, I don’t care about the Taliban who are in my country,” she said. “Education is so important for our future.”
“Our future depends on us and what we do,” she said. “We are very passionate about our country and we want Afghanistan to be a better place for the youth.”