As a 16-year-old, Nagin Ravand got ethnic minority girls to play football in Gellerupparken in Aarhus. Now she dreams of influencing the development of women's football from the top of FIFA – and heading Afghanistan's women's national team. Here she tells how football has become her means to make the world a better place.
I was born in June 1999 and was only three years old when I came to Denmark from Afghanistan with my parents and siblings as UN quota refugees. We settled in Nørresundby in Northern Jutland, and I must have been 10 years old when I went with a friend to football training at Lindholm IF. My first impression was actually one of amazement that I only just found out at that time that there was a community like this outside of school hours: a place where the girls from the class also met. It was as if I felt even more of an outsider when I was first invited to the training.
But that feeling was quickly overshadowed by the joy I experienced when the training started. I absolutely loved the feeling football gave me: standing on the grass with the ball, and then only the goal and the way to get there mattered. I still have that feeling when I play football. I also found out quite quickly that it was a sport I had talent for, and I went to training at AaB's talent centre in Aalborg on several occasions.
"Football gave me the belief that I was good at something, but it also reminded me that you will always depend on others wanting to play with you, and in that way it made me a very open person."
I learned to collaborate.
My biggest dream as a footballer was just to keep playing and getting better. I lived off the hype I got when I dribbled past an all-boys team or learned a new trick. I was in constant competition with myself, but I never really had a bigger goal that I dreamed of. As a kid from Afghanistan, I kind of took what I could get. I never thought beyond that. I was already living the dream: to be in Denmark, to play football, to be good at it. That was my dream. It is what many in Afghanistan still live for. In my position, it was hard to ask for or imagine anything more. Does it make sense? I think I was too busy being grateful for something that really has been my right all along. It's a difficult balance.
After we moved to Gellerupparken in the Aarhus suburb of Brabrand in 2013, I found out that there were no football teams for the local girls. I quickly developed a relationship with the local volunteers in the football club ACFC (Activity Center Football Club, ed.), because I was constantly playing on their pitches. Through a joint initiative by me and the youth leader Mac we established a department for 9-16 year old girls in the club. Mac was my eternal support and right hand, and he was also the one who gave me the courage to take the plunge. We wanted to create something bigger than ourselves, and from there I took charge and started a process that slowly began to bear fruit.
The biggest challenges were clearly people's prejudices. I clearly remember the looks that me and the girls got when we had to play away games. All too often we had to listen to our opponents, whom we had never even met, say "watch out for them" before the match had even started. It's statements like these that make you just not want to set foot on a football pitch, when you have already been judged to be aggressive or become associated with a stereotype, before you are allowed to define yourself on and off the field. The consequence was that some of my girls did not want to join the matches. They experienced that their free kick was not just a free kick. It was always a free kick committed by an aggressive Muslim.
Another thing that bothered me and affected my self-confidence was that I was never really recognised as a coach myself, and when someone finally had to face the fact that I was actually the coach, I was met with a half smile and raised eyebrows. Whether it was because I was 16 years old and female, or because I wear a headscarf, or maybe all of those things, I don't know. I was always looked at as if I had no skills to offer.
My best memory is definitely the first game the girls played and my first game as a coach.
“It was the moment the girls walked onto the field in full combat uniform and with their heads held high that I really felt proud and happy about what was happening. It was just a football match, but in many ways it was also life and light.”
If I met the younger Nagin Ravand on the street today, just as she was about to start the girls' football department at ACFC, I would give her the advice that whenever there is something that feels difficult or creates some kind of uncertainty, it is a sign that you are going in the right direction.
I have occasionally heard the following: Yes, you have helped to give a lot of girls a healthy leisure interest, but you are also keeping them stuck in an immigrant environment and thus you are not doing anything good for integration. I can understand the point. At the beginning, I would probably have answered that the most important thing is that you just get an opportunity to be active, and then it doesn't matter where and with whom, because football has the ability to bring people together at the intersection of all differences, whether you like it or not. So, it's really just about getting started one way or another. I still stand by that.
On the other hand, as a critic of the initiative, you must also remember to ask yourself why the need to create "our own" has arisen. If there really was room for minority ethnic girls in the existing associations, would this need even have existed? There are a couple of clubs just outside Gellerupparken - why don't all the girls just play there? I think that would also be cool, but that's just not the case. That is not reality. It is not a criticism of those clubs, but a question of inclusiveness. CAN and WILL you accommodate all girls? And if you are quick to answer yes to that question, then you have to look inward and at your structure to see if you are actively doing something to live up to this ambition.
Not everyone can do everything, and therefore it is just a huge gain that there are some who take the initiative to create their "own", because the alternative in my case would be that these many girls did not get to play football at all. As far as I can see, we can’t get out on the field fast enough.
So yes, today I actually have bigger dreams with football than just being able to play it. Overall, I fight for girls and women with a minority ethnic background to have the same opportunities to be on the football pitch as the majority have. It is not only the opportunities I am determined to create, but also the right conditions to be able to go for it one hundred percent and utilise one's full potential on equal terms with everyone else. The goal is to reduce the inequality that exists in the football world. And now that we're at it: I dream of being part of FIFA's executive committee, where I can help set the direction for women's football around the world. And I dream of leading the Afghan women's national team and representing Afghanistan at a time when it needs it more than ever.