How soccer can change the world

My identity personally and professionally has been closely intertwined with soccer.

In 2004, I set out to start a soccer program for a group of young Afghan girls. I wanted to bring them to the U.S. and teach them the fundamentals of the sport allowing them to bring that knowledge home to continue to play the game and share it with other young girls.

Why soccer?

I had no intimate connection to the sport but understood a few things about the "global game." It would be an easy sport to take back to Afghanistan. All that's needed is a ball. Soccer -- at least in the U.S. -- is one of the most popular sports for young women. The U.S. women's national team was, and still is, one of the most dominant teams on the world stage.

My perception of the sport skewed me into thinking soccer was the most gender-neutral sport worldwide. I soon found that couldn't have been further from the truth.

Through this experience and my travels, I realize the soccer field represents a male-dominated domain that is slow to embrace the participation of young women. So it was a benchmark moment when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stood at the podium last Monday, wishing the U.S. National team her best as they depart for this year's Women's World Cup.

The event also marked Clinton's announcement launching the Women's World Cup Initiative to empower young women and girls around the world through sport.

Among the guests were 18 young female soccer players from Bolivia, Germany, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territories and South Africa who were in the States for a 10-day exchange trip sponsored by the State Department's popular SportsUnited program. Soccer, it appeared, had changed their lives.

"I was about 9 years old and [my father] saw me playing indoor soccer and he thought 'wow, you can actually play soccer,'" said Nicole October, 14, a member of the delegation who is from Cape Town, South Africa.

While all eyes were focused on South Africa during last year's World Cup, the soccer attention in the country has always focused on the men's side of the sport. "Soccer in the girls' league is not well promoted but [it is] well thought of," said October. "It's not very big but it is as well supported as the boys."

Despite the lack of media coverage and less local support compared to what the men's teams may receive, women's soccer has grown in popularity in recent years as South Africa has emerged as an international soccer country, with girls now vying for goals both locally and internationally as they advance in the sport.

"I'm definitely, positively, thinking of joining the under 17 national team," said October. "I think I'm one of the favorites."

Yet, as one nation is on the verge of becoming a women's soccer powerhouse others are still very much in the infancy stage.

Abiha Haider, 15, from Islamabad, Pakistan, is the youngest member of Pakistan's first women's national team. An impressive feat, but more interesting is her age when she was first selected for the team.

"I was 12 at that time and I was quite young and all of the players and spectators were laughing," Haider said, "but when they saw me play they were like 'no, she has talent.'"

The fact that a 12 year old could have been selected for the national team speaks volumes about where the game stands today in a country only five years into its women's soccer history.

"Right now it's in its initial stages and it's developing day-by-day," Haider said. "We have a lack of resources in Pakistan -- coaches are not that well trained, [and] we don't have women coaches."

Just getting parents to support this new generation of female athletes has also proven difficult.

"Some people are conservative and they don't allow their daughters to go openly and play on the grounds with shorts and shirts," Haider said. "It's very difficult to change the minds of those people and to make them send their daughters to the grounds."

But she is hopeful and sees the sport developing daily with new opportunities.

"Soccer gradually changed my life," she said with a smile.

Those are words Secretary Clinton hopes to hear more of in the future, thanks to her new initiative.

As do I.

In speaking to these girls, I was reminded of an Afghan phrase "however tall the mountain, there is always a road." These young girls are now paving that road for the next generation of female soccer players.

Hopefully, they'll face far fewer bumps along the way.

Awista Ayub is the author of "The Kabul Girls Soccer Club."

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