KABUL • Representing Afghanistan internationally should have been the highlight of Khalida Popal's career as a professional footballer, but life in the strife-torn country is never that simple.
It has been seven years since she was forced to leave her family and her homeland, terrified for her life and personal safety, after pioneering women's football in a country that has been described as one of the most dangerous places to be female.
She has paid a high price for becoming the face of the Afghanistan women's football team, with death threats forcing her to spend a year in an asylum centre before being granted permission to live in Denmark in 2012.
But Popal remains a local girl at heart, and despite having since suffered a career-ending knee injury, she has continued to organise training sessions for the team in other countries including Jordan, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.
These camps have brought together players from inside and outside Afghanistan, and the bonds forged have compelled Popal to speak out about the ordeal of Afghan women players and her frustrations with a system that has failed to protect them.
Last Sunday, the country's attorney general suspended Keramuddin Keram, the head of the Afghan Football Federation (AFF), and four others after a probe into allegations of sexual abuse of members of the women's national football team.
According to the attorney general's office, they are:
• The AFF's deputy president, Yosuf Kargar
• Its general secretary, Sayed Alireza Aghazada
• A coach in charge of goalkeepers, Abdul Saboor Walizada
• An official in charge of liaison with provincial football teams, Nadir Alimi
While the investigation is still ongoing, Fifa has provisionally banned Keram from all football-related activities for 90 days "pending proceedings".
His name brings back harrowing memories for Popal. In a telephone interview with the New York Times, she claimed "the president of AFF and some trainers are raping and sexually harassing female players".
The 31-year-old also revealed to The Guardian the purported transgressions were as recent as February, when the players flew to Jordan from Afghanistan while being accompanied by two men.
"They (the AFF) sent two male representatives, going under the title of 'head of women's football' and 'assistant coach'," she said.
"They were bullying and harassing the girls, particularly the ones from Afghanistan because they knew they wouldn't speak up. I confronted them, told them they can't do that and I'd make a complaint.
"It continued. These guys were calling on the rooms of the players and sleeping with the girls. AFF staff members would say to girls that they could get them on the team list and would pay them £100 (S$173) a month if they would say yes to everything.
"They were pushing and forcing the girls. Coercing them."
When the players threatened to complain, Keram, who wields considerable political influence as a former governor of Panjshir Province, allegedly beat one of them with a snooker cue, and threw her and eight other women off the team, labelling them "lesbians".
After learning that the nine players had been sidelined, she went on to do her own investigation, only to find out the "huge extent of the abuse".
Popal added: "He (Keram) has a room inside his office that is a bedroom with a bed. The doors of his office (have) fingerprint recognition, so when players go in, they can't get out without his fingerprint.
"I found some of the girls were sexually abused, and physically abused if they said no. The federation would make an excuse to get rid of the player so that if they came out (and spoke publicly), it would look like they were just upset about being kicked off the team."
American Kelly Lindsey, the former national coach, corroborated Popal's account, saying the two male officials that were involved in the Jordan case had been "promoted and moved to other areas in the AFF".
The federation has, however, denied the allegations, calling them "groundless", while insisting it had "a zero-tolerance policy towards any type of such behaviour".
NYTIMES, REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN