Rest of the Afghan Girls Soccer Team Successfully Rescued, Given Asylum in Portugal

“So humbled to share that we have successfully evacuated 80 members of the Afghanistan Youth Women’s National Team along with their family members,” said women's national team captain Farkhunda Muhtaj

Afghanistan Girls Soccer Team
Afghanistan Girls Soccer Team. Photo: AP Photo/Alex Sanz

The remaining girls on the Afghanistan youth women's national team and their families were successfully rescued from their home country in a mission called Operation Soccer Balls, according to the Associated Press.

"I have been in direct contact with the National team in Portugal and have been doing daily [Zoom] meetings with them," the captain of the Afghanistan women's team, Farkhunda Muhtaj, tells PEOPLE. "They are doing very well."

On Sunday, the teammates, who all dream of becoming professional soccer players, were chartered on a flight from Afghanistan to Portugal, where they were granted asylum, the AP reported in a Tuesday story.

"The world came together to help these girls and their families," Robert McCreary, a former congressional chief of staff and Bush administration official, told the outlet. "These girls are truly a symbol of light for the world and humanity."

Muhtaj, the captain of Afghanistan's women's national team, who now lives in Canada, echoed that to the AP: "They left their homes and left everything behind. They can't fathom that they're out of Afghanistan."

The latest rescue attempt was executed with little notice for the group of 80, evacuating the team members, who range in age from 14 to 16, and their families, the AP reported.

Nic McKinley, a CIA and Air Force veteran who works with Dallas-based nonprofit DeliverFund that has secured housing for Afghan families, explained "This all had to happen very, very quickly. Our contact on the ground told us that we had a window of about three hours."

He added, "Time was very much of the essence."

There had been several failed rescue attempts to get the group out of Afghanistan and according to Muhtaj, "Their mental state was deteriorating."

The women's national team captain said she tried to keep the young athletes motivated with virtual exercise sessions, yoga, and homework such as writing their own autobiographies.

"Many of them were homesick. Many of them missed their friends in Kabul," she told the AP. "They had unconditional faith. We've revived their spirit."

Muhtaj shared the news of the successful evacuation on Twitter Tuesday, writing "So humbled to share that we have successfully evacuated 80 members of the Afghanistan Youth Women's National Team along with their family members to @Cristiano Ronaldo's nation of Portugal."

"So thankful to work with such amazing leaders on this mission," she added.

Wida Zemarai, a coach for the Afghanistan women's national soccer team who has lived in Sweden since the Taliban gained power in her home country in 1996, told the AP that since landing in Portugal, the girls "can dream now" and "can continue to play."

In addition to ambitions of becoming doctors, movie producers, and engineers, the girls hope to meet soccer legend Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal, some told AP through an interpreter.

The youth soccer team members and their families faced several setbacks as they initially tried to evacuate. Some of the 133-person group were rescued and flown to Australia in August, while others were left behind. The remaining team members were unable to leave the country due to the suicide bombing at Kabul airport that had been the center of international evacuation efforts, the AP reported at the time.

The attack, believed to have been carried out by fighters by a branch of the Islamic State who opposes both America and the Taliban, killed approximately 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members.

Muhtaj previously told AP, the remaining girls who were not able to get out were "devastated" and "hopeless" after the attack.

Final Flights, Kabul, Afghanistan
Senior Airman Taylor Crul/AP/Shutterstock

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Julie Foudy, a former captain of the U.S. women's national soccer team, told the news agency that the rescue mission helped "raise the visibility of these young women and their importance to equality and democracy and all these things that we value in this country."

Foudy, a two-time World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, added, "As many of us who can stand up as female athletes — as humans — and say, 'This is a moment we need to come together and do what's right,' then we absolutely should."

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