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Photo: David Oates

People

Escape to victory

As a girl, Nadia Nadim could only play soccer ­inside the walls of her garden. But when her ­father was brutally executed by the Taliban, she escaped Afghanistan and began a journey that would take her to the top of women’s soccer.

Today, despite her Manchester City-branded rucksack, striker Nadia Nadim walks relatively unnoticed into the lively café in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, a trendy neighborhood with vibrant street art and bohemian bars. The soccer-mad city is about as great a contrast to where she came from as you could find.

Nadim grew up in Kabul, where kicking a ball beyond the walls of her family home was inconceivable. But like many children, she was introduced to soccer by her father, although she admits the game caused some confusion initially.
 “My dad gave us a ball and we started playing some other game like dodge ball, I think. We had never seen a football before,” she laughs. “I remember in the garden one day he said, ‘girls, you’re supposed to kick it,’ and he started to show us some tricks.”

Photo: David OatesSome 25 years later, Nadim, the second of five sisters, is playing in The Football Association’s Women’s Super League in England. But while the family cheers on City’s latest acquisition from the stands, there’s one important figure missing – the man who made it all possible in the first place.

The Taliban seized Kabul in September 1996 after days of fierce fighting. Within two years, the hardline Islamic movement had expanded its control to over two thirds of the country.
“I remember my life in Afghanistan in two phases,” says the now 30-year-old Nadim, her broad smile slowly waning. “The first is when I was young and everything was normal. My dad was working and we had an ordinary childhood. What I remember of the second phase is chaos and war. We were not even supposed to go outside. I knew what was going on. For a while we had felt like the war was getting closer. You could hear the sound of rockets in the distance.”

Nadim’s father Rabani, a prominent general in the Afghan army, was summoned to a meeting with the ­Tali­ban – but he never returned. Some six months later, the family discovered he had been taken to a remote location in the desert and executed. Nadim was 10 years old.
“It was really hard. You didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. You didn’t even know if you’re going to be alive. It was especially difficult for a family of six women. My mom wasn’t allowed outside without a man. She couldn’t even buy groceries. It’s not easy to be a human being there, and it’s almost impossible to be a woman.”

Determined to find a new life free from fear and restrictions, Nadim’s mother put her life savings into an escape plan. The family fled to neighboring Pakistan by road and then Nadim’s mom arranged travel to Europe on fake passports.
“She gave someone tons of money to get us out of country,” Nadim says. “We flew from Pakistan to Italy and the plan was to head for London where we ­already had family.”

Photo: David OatesNadim was 12 years old then, but still vividly remembers the harrowing journey. The family was hidden in a “disgusting basement-like room” before being driven to a truck parking facility. They were told to climb into a truck, hide behind the containers and remain silent for the duration of the journey. Naturally, they feared the consequences of being caught.
“I don’t know how long it was before the doors opened – a day or two – and we were ordered to get out. It was early in the morning and we had no idea where we were, but it didn’t matter. We were safe.”

But Nadim and her family had not reached their promised destination. A passer-by walking his dog shortly  after dawn told the family they were in Denmark. Nadim and her family had been forced to disembark the truck just outside Randers in central Denmark. They were then transferred to the Sandholm accommodation center in Copenhagen, a processing location for asylum seekers.

Even though the player has called Denmark home since 2000 – and was granted citizenship in 2008 – she admits the transition wasn’t easy. However, it was during this time that Nadim and her sisters began to find solace with a ball at their feet on a nearby playing field.
“I was in an environment where I got to be a kid again,” says Nadim as she remembers roaming around with a ball long into the evening. “We used to sit and watch kids playing soccer in the refugee camp every day. I would sometimes sit there for hours. Over time we gradually sat closer to where they were playing. Sometimes we collected their balls when they were doing shooting practice.
“I had never really seen girls playing sports until I got to Denmark. We knew what soccer was because dad had shown us, but I’d never seen anything like this. It was love at first sight,” jokes Nadim, admitting the game became an obsession.

Some time passed before Nadim gathered the courage to ask the Guk Boldklub’s coach if they could join in the training session. Some of the children participating had already been playing for five years or more, but rather than feeling downbeat, it spurred her. And so came Nadim’s first pair of soccer shoes. 
“We didn’t have much money so my mom took me to a second-hand store. We found some Adidas boots – they were like antiques,” she laughs. “They didn’t fit my feet and they gave me blisters, but I didn’t care.” Little did she know she would go on to become ­Denmark’s first Nike-sponsored female player.

Following a successful trial with B-52 Aalborg, ­Nadim and her sisters were offered the chance to join one of the most promising clubs in Denmark – only made possible by the club’s decision to sponsor their travel. After turning down a professional contract abroad in favor of pursuing her ambitions to become a doctor – a reconstructive surgeon in particular – Nadim signed her first professional contract in Denmark with IK Skovbakken in 2006, before moving on to Fortuna Hjorring in 2012.

Meanwhile, her attacking prowess was attracting attention on a national scale. Despite having not lived in the country for five years after turning 18, Nadim was given the green light to represent Denmark after a successful appeal to FIFA. In 2009, she became the first naturalized player of ­either gender to earn a cap for Denmark. She now has 75, including appearances at the UEFA Women’s European Championships in 2009 and 2013. She was also part of the Danish squad that was beaten in the final in 2017 by hosts The Netherlands.

Denmark’s head coach, Lars Søndergaard, says Dansk Boldspil-Union are proud to have played a significant role in Nadim’s development. “Nadia is a talented technical player who loves to score goals,” he says. “What makes Nadia even more special is her background. I think it has made her who she is – a very dedicated person. We’re really happy to have her as a part of the team and proud to have helped her accomplish what she has today.”

After an impressive three year spell with the Elite­divisionen club, Nadim accepted a deal to join Sky Blue FC in New Jersey in 2014. She quickly made a name for herself in the US National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and moved to the Portland Thorns almost two years later. There, she helped the club secure the NWSL Shield and finished the season as the team’s highest goal scorer.
“Women’s soccer is huge in the US and we felt like rock stars,” she says. “There were 18,000 fans turning up to watch us. It gave me goosebumps. I couldn’t believe I was there.”

The 1.75m tall forward, who can now speak nine languages, moved to Manchester in January. Nadim admitted City’s official unveiling at the Etihad Stadium was a day she’ll never forget. “I was honored to join Man City because it’s one of the biggest clubs in Europe. When it comes to facilities, they’re in a different class, the best I’ve ever seen. The fan culture around the women’s game in England isn’t quite there yet, but it’s growing with the success of the national team.”

Photo: David OatesNadim may have achieved more than she could ever have dreamed of as a child, but she still harbors a burning ambition. “Winning the Champions League is one of my biggest wishes, and I think that will be possible here,” she smiles.
Although Nadim remains somewhat modest about her position as a role model, the Football Association Head of Women’s Leagues and Competitions, Katie Brazier, says she is a welcome inspiration to the ­English game.
 “It’s very important for us to have strong inspirational role models in all areas of the game,” says Brazier. “Nadia’s story is remarkable. She has overcome such adversity to play the game she loves at the highest level and it shows that with focus, determination and ­tenacit,y anything can be possible.”

But Nadim’s goals go beyond soccer. She is one semester away from completing a six year qualification with Aarhus University and realizing her dreams in the medical profession.
“It’s awesome to be a professional player but I needed something else. I play soccer because I love it and it makes me happy, but education has always been important to me and I want to be able to give back,” she says, revealing a willingness to aid the wounded in war-torn countries like Afghanistan. There could surely be no better way to do so. 

Last edited: August 1, 2018

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