Wednesday 15 February 2017, 08:07

Nadia Nadim, a football refugee

Nadia Nadim is unstoppable. You have to drag her away from the Portland Thorns training ground, where she’ll happily do shooting drills for hours on end. She excels in the classroom too, where she studies medicine in her spare time. You can hear her smile through a phone line. There’s a joyful restlessness in her voice. And she’s a long way from where she started.

When Nadim was a little girl, her father brought a football home. “One of those old ones, like from the 70s, with the black dots,” she told, remembering the moment like a faded photograph. “Me and my sisters didn’t know much about football, so we played volleyball and catch with it. Whatever was fun.”

This was Afghanistan under Taliban rule. “My dad was a huge football fan,” said Nadim, now 29, a top star in the women’s game. Her energy dipped a little when speaking of the man who introduced her to football. “He was crazy for it, and he tried to pass his love for the game to his five daughters.”

When her father disappeared in 2000, the Nadim family feared the worst. “The Taliban took him,” she said, still a quickness in her voice, a bundle of energy and raw nerves recalling what she felt when she was 12. “He disappeared. We knew he wasn’t coming back. That he was murdered.”

Nadia’s mother, Hamida, feared for her daughters. A woman of strong will and courage, she hatched a plan to escape. “We were six females alone,” Nadim said. “We had no future. No school, no work. We couldn’t even walk down the street without a man with us. Everything was burning.”

A long road away The family would leave, no matter how difficult the road. “My mother wanted us to have a future, to be independent people,” Nadim said of those moments before her mother woke her in the night to flee, to become refugees in a dangerous world. They were smuggled out in the dark, with only the clothes on their back. These six women, a mother and her daughters, fled hopelessness. They travelled through Afghanistan and Pakistan in a minivan. On false passports, they flew to Italy with hopes of reaching England, before finally settling in Denmark.

We didn’t even know what football was. We only knew you had to kick the ball and run and try to score goals!

It wasn’t freedom, exactly, but it was a fresh start. The refugee camp was better than no hope and no future. “It was a happy time for me,” Nadim said. “I missed my father, but the rest of my family was with me.”

From nine in the morning to one in the afternoon, the Nadim girls went to school. After that, they were free. And with that freedom, came football. “We began to play all the time,” Nadim said, laughing, remembering the chaos of those early days. “We didn’t even know what football was. We only knew you had to kick the ball and run and try to score goals!”

Free time and football Nadim described chasing balls behind the goal at a local club in exchange for a few precious minutes on the pitch. She watched in awe on television, getting her first glimpse of global stars on the small screen. “Ronaldo – the Brazilian one – and Figo and Zidane!” She said their names with reverence. Her enthusiasm surged at the memories. A few curses slipped from her mouth. “We saw commercials with Beckham bending the ball and we couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”

Once, so inspired by Oliver Kahn, Nadim urged her youngest sister to dive and slide like that legendary German colossus on the TV. “Maybe it wasn’t the best idea,” Nadim admitted, chuckling. “Because we were on concrete and she had scratches and bruises everywhere!”

Nadim caught the eye of local coaches, even when shaking the repressive culture she came from wasn’t easy. “In Denmark, where women do everything men do, I still felt like I was doing something wrong when I played football,” she said. “Like I was breaking the law.”

With her mother’s unwavering support – sweetened with the promise of good grades in school – Nadim played for the first time in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2012, three years after a first cap for Denmark. “I’m so emotional on the field when I’m losing,” she said. “I hate it more than anything! But I feel the same thing in reverse when I score. When I score a goal all the emotions come up and out.”

Readying to take part in this year's UEFA Women’s EURO and dreaming of taking a bow at a FIFA Women’s World Cup™, she’s never far from that day, long ago, when her father rolled a football into her life. “It started as a game, something for fun, to break free,” Nadim said. “It still feels that way for me. It’s still a game. It has to be.”