Operation Soccer Balls: Afghan Girls Soccer Team Rescued Successfully, Given Asylum in Portugal

After weeks of uncertainty, the Afghanistan girls soccer team and their families were rescued from the Taliban and safely arrived in Portugal, where they have been given asylum. "They can dream now."

After weeks of anxiously waiting, the Afghan girls soccer team got the call on Sunday that a charter flight would transport the girls and their families from Afghanistan, but the destination was unknown.

“They left their homes and left everything behind,” said Farkhunda Muhtaj, captain of the Afghanistan women’s national team who left her home in Canada to spend the past few weeks helping arrange the girls’ rescue. “They can’t fathom that they’re out of Afghanistan.”

The girls, ages 14-16, have been fearing what their lives might become since the Taliban took control of their home country. Late Sunday, they landed in Portugal.

The rescue mission, called Operation Soccer Balls, was in coordination with the Taliban through an international coalition of former U.S. officials. “This all had to happen very, very quickly,’ said Nic McKinley, a CIA and Air Force veteran. “Our contact on the ground told us that we had a window of about three hours. Time was very much of the essence.”

Operation Soccer Balls had several setbacks, including many failed rescue attempts. Another issue was the large size of the group — 80 people that consist of 26 youth team members and their families. 

“The world came together to help these girls and their families,” said Robert McCreary, former congressional chief of staff and White House official under President George W. Bush. “These girls are truly a symbol of light for the world and humanity.”

Wida Zemarai, a goalkeeper and coach for the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team, said the girls were emotional after their rescue. “They can dream now,” she said. “They can continue to play.”

Image source: Associated Press