Nadia Nadim, the Denmark international, escaped the Taliban to become a true football (soccer) trailblazer.
After fleeing her native Afghanistan, Nadim found a new life in Denmark where it was acceptable for women to play football in public. She paid her dues by taking them to the finals of Euro 2017 tournament and scoring in the final.
Like many of the women playing in the European Championships Nadia Nadim was introduced to football by her father, who brought home a ball when she was a little girl. The rest of her story, however, is unique, a tale of tragedy and triumph even Hollywood might cry at.
Denmark is Nadim's adopted country. One of five sisters she was born and grew up in Afghanistan where her father, Rabani, was a general in the Afghan Army. When she was 10 the Taliban, who controlled the country, summoned her father to a meeting. He never returned. It was six months before her mother, Hamida, discovered he had been taken into the desert and executed.
Life for a family of six women was all-but impossible under a regime in which unaccompanied females were tightly restricted. The girls were unable to go to school, Hamida unable to work. Even play was curtailed. Nadim had only kicked the ball around inside her garden, to play in public was forbidden. She later said she never saw any females playing any sports, adding that, had she stayed she could well have been killed herself for being too independent-minded to conform to such a repressive society.
The family put their savings into escape, being trafficked to Europe via Pakistan and, with forged passports, a flight to Italy. There they were put on a truck expecting to be taken to London, where Hamida had relatives. Several days later the bus stopped, the occupants thrown out. It was not what they expected. They asked a passer-by and found they had been dumped in rural Denmark by the traffickers.
Escape to Denmark
When a 12-year-old Nadia Nadim stepped off a cargo truck, looking upon an unrecognisable land, she would have no idea the country before her would not only offer her the one entity her family craved most: safety, but a career in a field that would have been deemed utterly unthinkable under the oppressive regime in her native Afghanistan: professional football.
When they arrived in Scandinavia, Nadia and her sisters were already familiar with football, having played together with their father privately in their back garden. When the Taliban came into power, activities such as sports were forbidden. Girls could not attend school over the age of eight, women could not work; women were not allowed in public unaccompanied. Even the traditional enjoyment of kite-flying was prohibited. Life would have been very different for Nadia and her sisters, had they remained in Afghanistan.
“I’m happy that I got a second chance,” she declares. “Me and my family got the best out of it.”
The family were sent to a refugee centre. There, for the first time, Nadim began to play football in public, with other children, and gradually became accustomed to a society where a girl playing football was acceptable. She began to train at a nearby club, Gug Boldklub.
Nadia played her first game in defence – and scored a hat-trick. Her confidence spurred her to embark on darting runs and her talent as a natural goalscorer was discovered.
The family were given leave to remain and moved to an apartment. This was some distance from the club but when her mother, working several jobs to support the family, said they could not afford to travel to training the club bought bus passes for Nadia as they recognized her talent and love for the game.
“It became an obsession really fast,” she smiles. “From then to now, I feel the same way. I love the game and I love the feelings that you get, especially when you score a goal.
With formal coaching Nadim flourished, breaking into senior football, then, after attaining Danish citizenship, the national team. She became the first naturalised Dane of either gender, to win a cap.
“I love that it’s so simple and so complex at the same time – and it doesn’t matter who you are. You can always just play.”
Aged 18, Nadia signed her first professional contract with IK Skovbakken and the family moved to Aarhus – additionally attractive for its educational opportunities. During her school life, Nadim discovered a second dream – to become a reconstructive surgeon – and juggled her football and studies to great effect.
“People who have done little things for me have had such a huge impact on my life and the way I see the world,” she continues. “I want to do that for others.
Chasing The American Dream
She now plays for Portland Thorns, the biggest club in the US whose gates average 15,000, a large attendance in women's football.
At 29 Euro 2017 may have been Nadim's last shot at football glory, but for her football has always been about enjoyment and her real ambitions lie beyond the game. Her football life takes another twist later.
“I’ve had some amazing people in my life that have helped me out,” Nadia recalls. “I’m paying it back!”
She is deep into a medical degree at Aarhus University in Denmark and as mentioned earlier wants to work in reconstructive surgery. This will be the branch that repairs people's faces after injury, not the more lucrative field that keeps celebrities looking unfeasibly young. Always recognizing the chances and new life that Denmark provided for her and her family, Nadia strives to fight hard for her adopted coubtry, even though a piece of her heart will always be in Afghanistan.
“I feel I have the skillset and as a doctor, I think I’m going to be able to touch a lot of people’s lives and help them.”
Grateful for the education she would have been denied back home, she also speaks nine languages fluently: Danish, English, German, Persian, Dari, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and French.
“I do love playing football – I enjoy it and I feel it’s my hobby – but I want to do something more.
Her unique personality mirrors her unique experience. Nadim is very much an individual with her own style – from her character to her fashion sense. Her sheer love of the game shines through – whether she’s training or in game mode. She has a playful air of confidence, a strong determination to achieve the most from life and even a fiery side – all of which are evident in her performance.
During play, she sports colourful headbands which she fashions herself. She stands out – in every way possible.
Inspirational Role Model
Having grown up playing football in the streets, she knows the importance of and the enjoyment the beautiful game can bring. Along with friends, she set up a football school project for disadvantaged children – so they could share some of the opportunities she had.
An Afghan woman, playing sport at the highest level and pursuing a career in the medical field, having witnessed and endured atrocities no person should ever have to suffer, leaving behind the life she knew and beginning a new one in a new country with a new culture and language, Nadim is a global inspiration. She’s humble about her role model status but takes it very seriously.
“I hope that at the end of my career, I have shown some people that anything is possible,” she adds. “It doesn’t matter where you come from or what you’ve been through. It just takes hard work and a belief in yourself and dreams do come true.”
The Final Football Chapter?
She joins Manchester City in January 2018 in the latest chapter of what has been a truly incredible journey – and we cannot wait to discover what she will bring to Nick Cushing’s domestic treble-winners and the English game.
Please share Nadia's inspirational story with your friends and family. Who knows, it may empower another young Afghan woman to greatness.