A Country To Call Her Own

Words & photos by Sara Esposito

The 2023 Women’s World Cup has just ended, which was played from 20 July to 20 August between Australia and New Zealand and which led to Spain’s victory for the first time.

The event was also the occasion for another important first time: Nouhaila Benzina, defender of Morocco, took to the field wearing the hijab, the Islamic veil that guarantees the minimum coverage required by Islamic jurisprudence for women.


Fatima also wears the Hijab and she is a footballer too, specifically a striker, a rising star of Afghan women’s football. She is 21 years old and was born and raised in Herat, one of the Afghan cities occupied by the American army since 2001. This is about her story, the story of a girl who grew up during the last Afghan Republic who had never lived under the Taliban regime.

In Herat she played in the women’s football team of the Bastan Football Club, and was into the national team. Ibrahimovic and Messi have always been her idols. Her dreams and passions are interrupted by the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, after twenty years of American occupation. Among the many discriminations and repression of women’s human rights, in particular sportswomen are prohibited from competing or just playing football, because they are considered a symbol of bad customs.

Since that moment their safety was at risk and playing football was no longer possible. Thanks to the help of COSPE, a non-profit association that works internationally to protect those at risk of discrimination and violence, they decide to take advantage of the possibility of leaving Afghanistan via a humanitarian corridor.

A good part of Bastan FC’s players therefore fled the country, and as soon as she had this opportunity she didn’t think twice. However, the departure of the humanitarian corridors took place from Kabul, 850 kilometers from Herat.

After the long journey to reach Kabul, Fatima is safe and traveling to Italy together with her brother (her parents were unable to leave at the end) and the other two teammates and their coach with their respective families. 

A few hours later, right outside the gate, an attack occurs which caused 183 deaths, of which 170 Afghans and 13 US soldiers. The evacuation is stopped and the human corridors closed.

In January 2022, together with two other teammates and their coach Najibullah, she arrived in Florence in one of the most open and supportive football realities towards certain social issues, the Centro Storico Lebowski, a sports cooperative society with a high social value

With the women’s CSL football team, she entered the history of the club, reaching the historic qualification for Serie C on a Sunday in May of the same year. There were a few minutes left until the end of the match when Fatima, number 16 on her back, entered the field in the decisive match, the direct clash of the Tuscan Excellence against the league leaders, Livorno.

In the ninetieth minute she takes advantage of a lack of attention from the opposing defense and scores the 1-0 with a mocking shot. Fatima is overwhelmed by the embrace of her teammates and fans: emotion and tears on the pitch as in the stands where the many supporters hug and kiss each other as if Lebowski had won the Champions League.

Since she arrived in Italy she has managed to obtain political asylum and has returned to playing football on a regular basis, finding a modicum of serenity and hope for the future. Fatima recently passed her Italian exam, and after just over a year she speaks it fluently.

In the meantime she is working in an electronics shop which has allowed her to continue the football training. And she also plans to study physiotherapy at university, so she will soon start studying for entrance tests.

After a year and a half spent in Lebowski, she continues to train even in the summer with her coach Najibullah, with whom she has an almost paternal relationship and with whom she participated in the Unity Euro Cup in Germany in June this year, a which sees 16 European national teams made up of refugees compete. With the Italy shirt he scored 2 goals coming in fourth place.

Today Fatima has the opportunity to be reborn as a woman and as a human being, and her eyes light up when she speaks with determination about her goals, she wants to continue following her dream of playing football.


However, her eyes do not hide that veil of sadness that she feels every time she talks to her parents on a video call. She would like them to come to Florence too, to reach it to save themselves from the Taliban regime, but at the moment the regime has blocked the issuing of passports.

This story of Fatima is about hope, perseverance, determination and hard work, faith in your passions and dreams, even if you are an Afghan woman and play football in a country governed by religious fundamentalists, who forbid it.


This story of Fatima is the story of a country that has experienced one of the bloodiest wars of the last twenty years, and it is a personal story of an Afghan girl who, in the summer of 2023 during the women’s football world cup in Australia and New Zealand , still dreams of being able to play football at the highest level.

Naples-born, Florence-based, Sara is a sports photographer and journalist, looking to uncover the untold stories of the unseen world of sports. You can follow her work on Instagram.