For Yasameen and Raziea Rasoul, the whole thing began more or less as a lark. The next thing they knew they were international celebrities, greeting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Kabul Airport, having lunch with ambassadors, and entertaining visiting journalists. The world moved on, but something unexpected happened along the way.
Yasameen and Raziea fell in love with soccer. Soccer fell in love with them. Nowadays, the Rasoul sisters are playing out their parts in a cultural revolution that’s quietly transforming Afghanistan. Yasameen, 19, is the star forward of the Afghan National Women’s Soccer Team. Her 18-year-old sister Raziea, a mid-fielder, is the team’s captain. Yasameen is also the coach of the Kabul Tornadoes. It’s a boy’s team.
The big story about Yasameen and Raziea is far from over, and the place it really begins is in a bombed-out neighbourhood of Kabul a short walk from the once-glorious 16th-century Babur Gardens, in the shadow of Sher-e-Darwaza Mountain.
One way of starting the story is with Duaine and Barbara Goodno. Duane was with the Peace Corps and worked as a Defence Department bureaucrat, and Barbara was a U.S. army major. With their own four children grown, they retired early and took up a new calling, coordinating development projects in Afghanistan.
On his first visit to Kabul, in 2002, Duaine wandered away from a tour of the Babur Gardens and found himself invited in for tea with a family in a collapsed two-storey house nearby, where the Rasoul family had settled as squatters. Back then, the only way to tell Yasameen and Raziea apart was that Raziea parted her hair on the right, Yasameen on the left. They were 11 and 12, but they’d grown up so malnourished they could have passed for seven-year-old twins. You would not know that to see them now.
You could say the Goodnos ended up adopting the Rasouls, or the Rasouls adopted the Goodnos. Either way, over the years, it was Yasameen and Raziea who would end up at the heart of the story, and it really started to take off when the Goodnos tried to give Yasameen and Raziea a break from the grind of Kabul, with a holiday in the United States. The visa rigmarole was a nightmare. The trip had to be cancelled. But Duaine had an idea.
Back in the States, there was the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange (AYSE), set up by Awista Ayub, the Afghan-American founder of the women’s ice hockey team at the University of Rochester. There was also the Sports Leadership Academy set up by Julie Foudy, an Olympic gold medalist and the former captain of American national women’s soccer team. They didn’t seem to have difficulties getting visas for kids from faraway places.
Duaine had noticed that Yasameen and Raziea were always kicking around a basketball outside his offices in Kabul’s quiet Karte Se neighbourhood, and their girlfriends would often join in. The Goodnos arranged for the Rasoul sisters, along with ten other Afghan girls in their early teens, to be coached by a Canadian volunteer in basic soccer skills on a daily basis during the summer of 2004. With the help of the ASYE and Julie Foudy, the Rasoul girls and their friends were a soccer team at the July, 2004 Children’s Olympics in Cleveland, Ohio. U.S. President George Bush was there. He’d heard about the Afghan soccer players, made a fuss of them, and voila - fame.
For a while, the news media just couldn’t get enough of the story. It was a story about proud and plucky Afghan girls, defying their country’s brutally misogynistic conventions, all for the love of soccer. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld had the girls around to play a game on the Pentagon lawn, even. But after the dust had settled, Yasameen, Raziea and their friends were the same rambunctious Kabuli girls they’d been before all the hubbub, except for one thing. They’d become well and truly mad about soccer. And they weren’t going to let anyone get in their way.