A BBC investigation into “false footballers” being evacuated from Afghanistan following the Taliban’s return to power has been criticised by some of the players themselves.
An investigation by the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight reported that a high-profile evacuation to the UK of Afghan women footballers fleeing the Taliban included a number of women who were not the top-tier players that was claimed.
130 people – 35 women alongside their families – were evacuated to the UK in November 2021, and the BBC report said it had identified 13 women who were not national or regional football players as claimed at the time. The team’s male coach, now living in Italy, was quoted as saying: "I have seen people in the list who have not even worn a football strip in Herat."
Some of the players involved have criticised the report as “very disappointing,” and “sad.”
One tweeted that the piece was sad to read, asking “how come BBC choose to interview the male coach who left us behind and didn't fight for us? we as women were at the risk, and now he is saying we don't deserve to be safe?”
Another described it as “disappointing” and that “we all deserve freedom. None of my teammates deserve Taliban. We are sad for the for girls left in Afghanistan but this is not our fault. We will continue to fight for them.” VICE World News has decided not to identify the footballers, unless we received permission from them to do so.
One of the players, Sahar Chamran, told VICE World News via Twitter: “I am upset that my team is attacked like this. I am sad that the article tells that our lives are not worth to be saved. We haven’t take a spot from any women of our country. We all played football and we all have documents to proof.”
She added: “It’s sad to see in this article the woman who helped us is under attack and they are putting us against each other. It’s not our fault that women are left in our country, we have kept fighting for the women of our country by using football as our platform.”
Her teammate Zeynab Mozaffari echoed this statement to VICE World News.
Siu Anne Gill, who ran the Rokit Foundation charity which was involved in bringing the footballers to the UK, was quoted in the BBC piece as saying the Home Office failed to check the women’s credentials, “relying instead on names” supplied by a former international player, Khalida Popal.
Users online have been criticising the piece for appearing to suggest that only certain women were worthy of saving from Taliban rule.
Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, women’s rights have deteriorated massively and women have experienced almost total exclusion from public life.
Players who were originally named in the piece highlighted their concerns over the safety of their family members who remain in Afghanistan.
The BBC reported that “there is resentment among genuine players now living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, that others appear to have got out with false credentials.”
The piece ends with rights of reply from Popal as well as the Home Office. Popal said: "I categorically deny the allegations directed at me. I have repeatedly provided extensive evidence and explanations about why any suggestion that I had any formal role in verification and/or knowingly misled anyone about the identities of those evacuated is wrong."
A Home Office spokesperson told the BBC: "We worked with a number of organisations who identified and referred the group to us, undertaking security checks as part of the process. Should there be evidence that the information provided was incorrect, the Home Office will investigate."
Another player said that BBC reporters “didn’t take the time to actually come and watch us playing after all the trauma we have been through. We didn’t have a safe life in Afghanistan now medias like this put us more in risk. This not fair to any women.”
She added that many football players are left in Afghanistan, “hundreds of club players and regional players. All the national teams are out. I don’t know who can help”.
Another Afghan football player in the UK also shared that school has been challenging since the piece came out, tweeting that, “Everybody was asking about the BBC article. Since it was published I’ve been dealing with stress and anxiety I felt overwhelmed & my teachers asked if I want to leave school & go home rest. We missed school in Afghanistan I don't wanna muss it here.”
Individuals in the UK who have been part of supporting the footballers’ time in the country have also been tweeting in support.
A statement from the BBC sent to VICE World News said: “We were initially contacted by the former women footballers still in Afghanistan who were unhappy they had been left behind and who had seen others claiming to be top-tier sportspeople granted refugee status. We investigated their claims.”
The statement continued: “The BBC has taken care not to identify anyone who hasn’t been previously been identified in other media but we will always carefully consider representations from those involved in stories.”
At the time of publishing this story, the BBC had removed several of the players’ names it included in its original piece.