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Afghan women footballers ‘finally feel free’ as they begin training at Leeds

Young Afghan players train at Leeds United’s Thorp Arch facility

Young female footballers who were helped by Kim Kardashian to flee Afghanistan “finally felt freedom” as they began training with professional coaches at Leeds.

Leeds chairman Andrea Radrizzani and American socialite Kardashian were among those involved in the effort last month to get the country’s women’s development squad out of Afghanistan, along with coaches and family members.

On Tuesday the players trained at Leeds’ Thorp Arch facility for the first time, before being taken to Elland Road to watch Marcelo Bielsa’s team beat Crystal Palace 1-0 in the Premier League.

Afghan players and their families at Elland Road

The players and their families were at Elland Road on Tuesday night for Leeds’ Premier League game against Crystal Palace (Khalida Popal)

Khalida Popal, the national team’s programme director who led the effort to get the players out of the country, told the PA news agency: “It was a really beautiful moment to see them playing football and enjoying the moment together.

“Most of them lost hope that they could ever come out of the oppression of the Taliban, they can never manage to get to feel freedom, so yesterday once they touched the pitch that’s what they said – they finally felt freedom.”

Popal has led the effort to get female footballers out of Afghanistan since the Taliban’s return to power earlier this year, helping to get the women’s national team to Australia and the youth side to Portugal.

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The development squad – which includes young players from underprivileged backgrounds – followed last month, after Radrizzani and Kardashian joined the effort to help get them out.

The squad – which includes 25 players and 10 coaches – are in temporary accommodation in Yorkshire, and have begun training sessions with Leeds’ coaching staff.

Popal said: “Leeds offered their training facilities, they offered their coaches, professional coaches, they have also through their sponsor offered full kits and equipment for the players.

“So they have been very, very kind.”

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The trip to Elland Road on Tuesday evening proved eye-opening for both the players and their families – some of the girls’ fathers, Popal said, had tears in their eyes.

She added: “When we were heading back to our place I was asking, ‘tell me the one thing about today that you loved the most?’

“And then they said, in one voice, ‘we loved everything, every moment, and this has been one of the best days in our life’.”

The future for the players is uncertain as it stands, but Popal is hopeful the team will be able to remain close together so they will be able to train.

Leeds celebrate scoring against Crystal Palace

Leeds ran out 1-0 winners against Crystal Palace (Nick Potts/PA)

For now, though, she is grateful to Leeds for giving them the opportunity to be a team again.

“I love the values the club stands for,” she said.

“The generosity and kindness in people there, it’s just more than a club. And it’s so beautiful to witness.

“What Andrea did was a great example, showing the power of football, and that’s what he did – through his dedication and support, he has shown the true values of the game.”

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