A few weeks ago I was visiting a children’s charity in Seville, Spain, when some kids showed me a new rule that I think should be part of football.
Obviously we have red and yellow cards. Well, these kids told me about the green card.
At first I was confused. I had never heard about anything like this. But then they explained that if a player falls down and you help them up, you are shown the green card. It’s a plus point for solidarity, the only booking you actually want to get.
I was like, This is adorable!! It’s such a cool way to encourage empathy.
These kids were showing me this at Fútbol Más, which is a charity that is using football as a tool to educate the next generation. I was there with the help of Hyundai and Common Goal, because I have signed up for Team Century, a group of ambassadors who are working to achieve Hyundai’s Goal of the Century and create a more sustainable future. Which, really, is the ultimate goal.
I had many reasons to be there. I think football should be used way more to unite and educate people. Since everyone can connect to it and understand it, it has this enormous potential to be a force of good. One part of that is to bring people from different cultures together. Another is to spread solidarity. I have seen enough of the world, with its climate changes and refugee crisis, to know that we’ll need both of those qualities in the coming years.
I am also living proof that a touch of kindness can change a life.
I’ll never forget the day I came to Denmark as a 12-year-old refugee. I met a police officer who had the choice between sending me straight to heaven or hell.
If he was kind, I might get a new beginning in Denmark.
If he was not, I might be sent back to Kabul, where I could end up dead.
I was down on the floor in every sense. I also knew that a bit of help could transform the destiny of a whole family — or, in my case, what was left of it. A few months before the day we arrived at the police station, we had fled in desperation from Afghanistan, where the Taliban had murdered my father, a general in the Afghan army. We knew that our lives would have been in danger had we stayed. So my mum, my four sisters and I were forced to join a group that, sadly, has grown to more than 25 million people across the world. We became refugees.
Unless it actually happens to you, you have no idea how confusing and frightening it can be to be forced from your home. In our case, my mum sold everything she owned, and one night we jumped into a minivan heading to Pakistan. We were just praying that nobody would stop us. When we got to Karachi, a fixer gave us forged passports, which we used to board a plane to Milan. Somehow, we made it to Europe. But even then, you are still not safe.
Once we got to Italy, we stayed in a basement apartment that was so rotten we wouldn’t even try to sleep. A few days later, two guys in bomber jackets drove us off to a parking area, where we hurried into the back of a truck heading for God knows where. We sat there for days in the dark, not eating or drinking because we had no toilet.
Can you imagine that? Being a little kid, sitting there in the dark, with no home and no idea where you’re going? We barely said anything the whole trip.
We were too hungry, too tired … too scared.
One day, the truck finally stopped. The driver shouted, “GET OUT! GET OUT!” and ran away. We peeked out and tried to figure out where we were. After a while we found a man walking his dog. My mum said, “Sir, where are we?”
He said, “Uh … in Randers.”
We were in Denmark. We knew nothing about Denmark. We needed help.
So we found a police station, and that was where we met the officer. We had no idea what our rights were. Could he put us in jail? Could he send us back to Kabul? It wasn’t like we walked out of the back of the lorry with a family lawyer. We kids didn’t even understand the officer, because none of us spoke a word of Danish or English. We just saw him sit down with Mum, check her documents and take notes.
So we waited. We were still starving. After a while the officer came back and said, “Heard you guys are hungry?”
We just looked at each other. What?
Then he rubbed his belly, as if to say, “FOOD??? HUNGRY????”
We all just nodded like, YES! YES, WE AAAAAARE!
So he drove us in his police car to a kiosk and bought us milk, toast and bananas. I have been lucky enough to taste some serious food in my life, but that is still hands down the best meal I have ever had.
With one simple gesture, he made us feel welcome. To him we were not just another group of refugees. We were not just a new problem.
We were made to feel like real human beings.
If I could, I’d go back in time and show him a green card.
Put in football terms, we have to be on the same team. Because actually, whether you like it or not, we are. We’re all living on the same planet. So the question is: Will we learn how to play together?- Nadia Nadim
I still think a lot about that police officer. I feel the world needs more and more people like him. This year alone, five million people have fled Ukraine. Many millions more have become refugees from war, poverty and climate change in places like Africa, South America and the Middle East. These are not just trends and statistics. These are real people, and they need help.
I’m not just talking about politicians or voluntary workers. This is a global challenge that must be solved by everyone, even people like me and you. It’s about our collective attitude to one another. It’s about tolerance and empathy.
Put in football terms, we have to be on the same team. Because actually, whether you like it or not, we are. We’re all living on the same planet. So the question is: Will we learn how to play together?
It is possible. I have seen with my own eyes what football can do.
After we had met the police officer, we were sent to a refugee camp. We were hoping and praying that the powers that be would not send us back. We saw people get deported back to places like Somalia, Congo, Iraq, Armenia and Russia. Some of them cried. Some fought. Some tried to escape. No wonder. Imagine risking your life to escape hell, and then being sent right back.
Luckily, we were sent on to a much nicer refugee camp, where we waited months for a letter that would say whether we could stay or not. This is where I fell in love with football. We kids spent our days at a language school there, and afterwards we’d gather on a bumpy grass patch where we’d play hide and seek or kick a ball around. We had these two goals that were completely smashed, but I loved it. I loved everything about it.
And you know what? Through those games, I was accepted. We had all come from different parts of the world. We looked different. We did not speak the same language. But once the ball got rolling, we understood each other. With a look and a wink, I knew where to run. With a pointing finger, I could say where I was going to pass the ball.
In a period when we were all lost and confused, football made us forget about our worries. It became our love, our language.
For a few hours a day, it became our escape.
Off the grass patch, even our families bonded. We lived in barracks with separate rooms and a shared kitchen, where my mum would talk to other parents, even though they did not actually speak the same language. I still don’t know how she did it. Whenever a family had been allowed to stay, EVERYONE in the camp came together for a big party in the kitchen.
We ended up staying there for seven months. Every day we knew that we could be sent right back. Without the support of our new friends and teammates, I have no idea how we would have gotten through that time.
One day, it was our turn. Our letter from the authorities had finally come. It was our moment of truth. Everything — our safety, our happiness, our lives — was hanging in the balance.
My mother opened the letter.
We could stay. We were safe. Just like that.
Welcome to heaven, goodbye to hell.
Since then I have seen, throughout my professional career, how football has united people again and again. I have played for teams in Denmark, England, France and the U.S., and I have seen men and women from every corner of the world come together through this sport. I think football creates this kind of magical fellowship that can be applied to anything, even a challenge as big as the refugee crisis. I mean, football is probably the most loved sport anywhere. If you play, you have already learned a universal language.
I believe football can be used in education, too, especially with the next generation. The way the game works means that nobody can achieve anything alone. I have never in history seen a team of 11 individuals win the league. It’s not gonna happen. No matter who you are and what you stand for, you have to do it together.
It brings to mind a story, actually, from just the other day.
Last month we were playing Washington Spirit away, and we were 2–1 down with a few minutes to go. We had actually been 2–0 down a little earlier, so we’re chasing the big comeback. One of our midfielders, Emily Fox, gets the ball on the right side. She could start to dribble on her own, but she sees that Jessica McDonald has space over on the left wing. Emily hits a beautiful cross that finds Jessica. She has time.
Just as Jessica gets the ball, I start my run inside the box.
She looks up.
She sees it. Swings in the cross. I go for the header.
I can barely describe the feeling. It’s not just an equalizer or a late goal. It’s a team move, the kind of stuff we try all week to pull off in training. Even better, we have all worked like crazy to turn a difficult situation around.
When we travel back home that day, every single player feels that she has played her part.
That’s what football is all about.
The same, I think, is true about life.