Walls won't hold back Nadia Nadim

Courtesy Robyn McNeil

The joyousness of Nadia Nadim's play is as appealing and as distinctive as the rainbow headband she wears on the field.

BRICK, N.J. -- There were always walls. For the first half of her life, Nadia Nadim navigated a world defined by them.

There were the high walls that surrounded the garden of the family house in Kabul, Afghanistan, and kept a young girl hidden from the outside world when she kicked a soccer ball and mimicked the movements her father showed her.

There were the side walls of the commercial truck she and her mother and sisters were herded into in Italy, uninsulated partitions that kept her hidden from the world beyond but did little to keep out the chill, even as they trapped the darkness all too well while smuggled passengers hid behind containers.

There were fences, too, around the asylum center in Copenhagen, Denmark, where 12-year-old Nadim and her mother and sisters later awaited word of their future as refugees. Even when the physical walls fell away, barriers remained in all that was required of her as an outsider adjusting to a new culture, a new language and a new life.

No wonder then that the open expanse of a soccer field so appeals to her. In all that space there is only opportunity.

Now in the final days of a loan stay with Sky Blue FC, which visits Western New York Flash on Wednesday (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET), Nadim will soon return to a new season with Fortuna Hjorring in Denmark's top division. Also a member of the Danish national team, Nadim has called Denmark home since 2000, ever since she, her sisters and their mother fled their native country after her father, Rabani, who served in the Afghan military, was executed by Taliban elements that controlled much of the country at the time.

It wasn't like it was my way to cope with the problems or the stuff I've experienced. I've never thought about it that way. … I just had fun. It made me happy. It still makes me happy. That was the best thing I knew at that point.
Nadia Nadim, on the role soccer has played in her life

The plane flight that took her from Copenhagen to New York this summer traveled a little more than 6,000 kilometers. An almost identical distance separates the Danish capital from Kabul. The former is the distance between two places. The latter is the distance between two lives.

As a Dane, she is free to play soccer and study medicine. But it is perhaps as an Afghan that she understands how much all of that means.

"For me, I grew up in Denmark," said Nadim, 26. "I feel like half and half. I have taken Danish culture to me, but I haven't forgotten my roots. I think it is important to keep the connection that you have. I don't think it's a bad thing. I have this connection to Afghanistan and to Denmark. I feel like a mixed person, which has both cultures from the Danish and the Afghan culture. It's working for me."

The walled garden in Kabul was a small sliver of normalcy in an otherwise increasingly fractured world in the Afghanistan of her youth. The capital came under the infamously ruthless control of the Taliban in 1996. At a time when girls were forbidden even from schooling, the idea of Nadim playing soccer beyond the walls was inconceivable. She said her mother, Hamida, tried to shield her five daughters from the worsening reality, but there were limits.

"Obviously no one is stupid; I knew what was going on," Nadim said. "You heard all the stories that people had been this and that, that they were killing everyone. It wasn't a great time."

After her father's murder, the family fled to neighboring Pakistan, where they stayed about a month while Hamida arranged travel to Europe on fake or stolen passports. Unaware of the false paperwork at the time, Nadim was told to act Pakistani and respond to questions in Urdu, a language in which she was far from fluent.

In Italy came the long ride in the back of the truck, the sound of a loose piece of plastic slapping against the truck is still burned into her mind. Those being smuggled were told not to speak, not to do anything and to use the darkened corner of the truck if they had to go to the bathroom. More than a decade later, Nadim almost spit the word "disgusting" as she described the degradation of that moment.

The destination was supposed to be London, where members of their extended family lived. But when the truck stopped and the few lights visible revealed something less than a metropolitan skyline, Nadim and her family wandered aimlessly until a local walking his dog in the predawn hours told them they were in Denmark.

Courtesy of Robyn McNeil

Nadia Nadim plays for Fortuna Hjorring in Denmark's top division, and also helped the Danish national team reach the semifinals of the European championship a year ago.

Instead of London they were in Randers, a small city in the north of the country. From there, the family was transferred to the Sandholm accommodation center in Copenhagen, the primary processing location for asylum seekers. While her family awaited a verdict on their new life, Nadim began shaping hers with a soccer ball.

Language lessons for the children occupied the mornings in Sandholm. By afternoon they were on their own, which usually meant soccer on a makeshift field. They played for hour upon hour, Nadim and her family having arrived in the country in late spring when available light stretched longer and longer each day. It was there, unsupervised and able to do whatever she wanted with the ball, that her natural ability latent in Afghanistan began to stretch its legs. Coaching would follow, as the family moved out on its own and she moved from a local soccer club to the professional club Skovbakken and finally Fortuna Hjorring, but she remains a player whose game is defined by the improvisation and creativity born of playing pickup games until darkness fell.

"We were just out and running after that ball," Nadim said. "I think that's how we improved our skills. We didn't, like, train, we just played, having fun. That's the best way to learn."

In Denmark, where immigration restrictions and a rejection of a multiethnic society are core principles for the Danish People's Party, sport opened doors and eased Nadim's adjustment. Instead of having to hide behind walls, she played out in the open and was spotted by a coach at a soccer club who invited her to play on their team. From there, her career took off. In 2008 the country's soccer governing body applied to FIFA to waive a rule requiring a five-year residency period for a player to gain eligibility for a new country upon turning 18 (when she officially gained Danish citizenship). A spokesperson for the Danish Football Association told espnW that the organization made the case that she was "well integrated in Denmark" and that her reason for applying for citizenship "was of a humanitarian nature and never football related."

Indeed, easing her transition might have been the effect of playing soccer, but it wasn't the cause. She didn't play soccer to fit in, but she fit in because of a more universal motivation.

"For me, at that point, it was just a game," Nadim said. "I wasn't analyzing. It wasn't like it was my way to cope with the problems or the stuff I've experienced. I've never thought about it that way. It was for me -- I just had fun. It made me happy. It still makes me happy. That was the best thing I knew at that point. So I don't know if that was my way to get out of everything and leave it behind or if it was just fun."

She brings so much life to the room, and speaks her mind, which is awesome. It's always a positive and it kind of brings the best out of you. She's a great person to have on a team, and she's full of confidence.
Casey Ramirez on teammate Nadia Nadim

She still plays the game in a manner that celebrates the freedom the field allows. She is an inventive, creative attacking player -- perhaps at times even too willing to try the home run move, to mix sporting metaphors, at the expense of the practical. But there is a joyousness in her play that is appealing and as distinctive as the rainbow headband she wears on the field.

American Casey Ramirez went abroad to play for Fortuna Hjorring and roomed with Nadim for much of a season.

"Nadia is an incredible person," Ramirez said. "She brings so much life to the room, and speaks her mind, which is awesome. It's always a positive and it kind of brings the best out of you. She's a great person to have on a team, and she's full of confidence. You can see it in her play -- she'll do moves and try anything."

Perhaps it's no surprise that someone who saw so much that was broken when she was young chose a profession dedicated to fixing that which can be fixed.

A student at Aarhus University, Nadim recently completed the fourth of what is a six-year process in Denmark for becoming a doctor (students pursue a bachelor's degree in their first three years, with the next three resembling something along the lines of the American medical school experience). It leaves little time for anything else, especially around end-of-year exams.

"The only stuff I do is I wake up, train, study, train, study, sleep," Nadim said. "It's just like repeat for two months. I have no life besides it. But I just want both really much. I want it to work. It's been working. It hasn't been easy, but if you want to, you can achieve everything. It's just the power of will."

Her decision to mix soccer with university brought on skepticism and doubt, but she is determined to finish and become a surgeon and determined to play soccer as long as she can.

"I usually like to prove people wrong," Nadim said. "They might have their opinions, but I do my stuff and shut people's mouths by just showing."

Sitting on the ground at the end of a training session, the words come out not cloaked in anger or bitterness but with the kind of grin that registered in her eyes as much as her mouth. She speaks five languages, including Danish, German, Dari (the Persian dialect of Afghanistan) and the once troublesome Urdu, but her English, while nearly flawless, at times carries a bluntness that suggests it was honed in the company of athletes over the years (as with the occasional unedited profanity that punctuates her recollection of a thought). Yet the bluntness suits her.

There is no more hiding from anything. She lives her life as she chooses, right down to her interpretation of her faith. "I don't look that religious because a lot of Muslim girls wouldn't play soccer or do probably other stuff, but I believe in God," Nadim said. "I'm a religious person. But I think religion is something personal. I don't have to show it to everyone, I don't have to make other people understand. It's my problem with God. As long as I can see myself in the mirror in the mornings, and I do the right things according to myself, that's it."

How much had to happen for the Afghan girl who kicked a ball in secret in Kabul to become the Danish woman talking about football, faith and the future beneath the summer sun in suburban New Jersey? She is literally a world away from where she began, soccer responsible for no small part of her journey. But soccer is also a connection to a time that predates the journey and to the man who showed her what to do with the ball. Before any of the rest of it happened, he showed his daughter that.

"It's a really long time ago," Nadim began cautiously. "But yeah, obviously, it's something that he introduced to us.

"He probably would be proud."

A tear traversed her cheek as she spoke the words. She appeared to hesitate, as if unwilling to acknowledge it before she quickly wiped it away and looked out over the field in silence.

In the moment, one more wall came down. One of many.

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