Many footballers might describe their career as “an emotional rollercoaster” – but none mean it quite like Farkhunda Muhtaj.
After all, representing and captaining the Afghanistan women’s national team is about much more than stepping on a pitch and trying to win a football match.
In the summer of 2021, Muhtaj was speaking with the Afghanistan Football Federation about competing in the qualifying campaign for the Women’s World Cup for the first time.
However, with the threat of Taliban taking over the country ever-growing, those conversations quickly changed.
“They called me – very scared, of course – saying, 'We need you to help evacuate the national team. What can you do to support all of us?'” Muhtaj, whose family fled the Afghanistan Civil War at the beginning of this century and have lived in Canada ever since, tells GOAL.
“Obviously, it was shocking for me, for all Afghans and for the whole world just how quickly the events had happened.
"But when I received that call, I really didn't know what to do, how to do it and what procedures I was going to take.
“But one thing I did know was you have to act when someone is asking you for help in a very difficult time. There is no time to cry or be pitiful about the situation. You just have to be active in finding solutions.”
After “a month of hell”, Muhtaj had helped get players from various national teams to safety in Portugal.
“Unfortunately, we can't train as a team the way we used to,” she explains. “Now, they're spread all throughout Portugal, training with their own clubs.
"I'm helping their parents slowly find jobs as well. But it's been extremely difficult, of course, not having access to a budget to be able to do all of this.
“It's difficult for them, as well, to learn a whole new language and then also learn it well enough to be able to do well in school, be able to get employed. These are kind of the difficulties we're working with right now.
“Nonetheless, the whole process has been an incredible blessing and I'm so lucky that we were able to push through and now they have a better future.”
With this task taking priority, Muhtaj left her teaching contract in Canada, she left her football team and she left her coaching role.
But a few months later, she’d return to playing at a club that she describes as “ideal” for her not only in its ambition on the pitch but its values off it.
Given her story, it’s quite the compliment to pay to Fortuna Sittard, the Dutch side that entered the women’s Eredivisie for the first time in 2022.
Fortuna had existed in the women’s game before but financial problems meant it was cut after just three months.
Bo Breukers, the club’s head of women’s football, was actually a player in the academy at that time, but he still expresses regret over what happened almost 10 years ago, even if he wasn’t involved.
When a new owner, Isitan Gun, came in in 2016, one of his first observations was the lack of a women’s team. “One thing is missing,” he said. When Amsterdam-based advertising company Azerion became minority shareholders last year, they wanted the same void filled.
With the club winning promotion to the men’s Eredivisie and returning to a “healthy” financial state, Fortuna began to work on a plan that Breukers hoped the federation “couldn’t say no to”. Indeed, it wouldn’t.
When this project was first put to Muhtaj, she admits to not knowing much about the club. But after learning more, she realised it was precisely where she wanted to be.
“Putting men and women on the same page, respecting them the same way, that's really important for us,” Breukers tells GOAL.
“We show it as a club. We have all the same facilities for our men's teams as for our women's team. We use the same dressing rooms. We use the same bus. Just small things, but we have all the same facilities for our women's team as our men's are getting.
“I think that's already a big step because even at big clubs in the Netherlands – and also in other countries – you don't see this. You always see a difference between what the men are getting and what the women are getting.
"That's a step in the right direction, I think. With this, we are working to show it to other clubs, other companies, other countries.”Fortuna Sittard/GOAL
Breukers also believes that the way in which Muhtaj is helping her compatriots can feed into the club’s social impact.
“Farkhunda can be a very important figure in that regard,” he adds. “Besides the quality she has on the pitch – because she's also a very good football player – what she did [for her country] is amazing.
"We want to help her in what she's doing, but we also want [her to contribute] in our own projects and our own ways to make the world a better place.”
The Afghanistan international is also part of an exciting group of players that, of course, have a burning desire to make a huge statement with their on-field exploits – and they have every chance of doing just that.
Indeed, this is not a club that lacks ambition. That became evident very early on.
In May, Fortuna made those in the Netherlands – and beyond – sit up and take notice by announcing the signing of Tessa Wullaert, a two-time Champions League finalist and Belgium’s all-time top goalscorer.
“The coach, he drove to where I live, which was a big effort because it's like a two and a half-hour drive, so I really appreciated that and we had a good talk,” Wullaert, captain of the team, tells GOAL.
The professional environment and proximity to home made the former Manchester City forward very interested in joining the club, while its support for her own venture off the pitch – GRLPWR, which offers football camps to young girls in Belgium – was another factor.
She really believes Fortuna can be successful in its goals, too.Fortuna Sittard/GOAL
“I think it's the mentality,” she explains. “We have people in our staff and all around the club that want to let this project succeed and want to invest in the project.
“We have a good sponsor, they even come to our games. For me, that's really important. I don't think I've ever seen sponsors going to the women's game as much as they do.
"That's a sign that they are really behind this and they also want to support us and then help us. I think that's really important.”
“[Wullaert signing] was actually a really nice moment for me personally, also for the club,” Breukers admits.
“After the agreement with the league was in the news, there were some big players and names, especially in Dutch football, who were saying that we were just going to be playing at the bottom and just doing it as a social side, but not making the league any more professional or any better.
“Of course, we knew what we wanted to do and what the business case was and what the possibilities were but I think when you can show that, you bring Tessa in, the rest of the league was like, 'Oh, sh*t, there's really something happening in Fortuna Sittard and they're really taking it seriously there.'"
With a player like Wullaert complemented by some of the most exciting young players from Belgium and the Netherlands, this is a squad that is already turning heads, too.
In their first Eredivisie game, they were beaten 4-0 by Ajax but their performance showed the football they wanted to play. Then, in October, in the club’s fourth ever Eredivisie game, Fortuna turned that promise into a big result – a 2-0 win over PSV.
“Incredible,” Muhtaj says, pausing and replaying the game in her head. “That just shows right from the beginning that we are capable of beating top clubs and we're capable of fighting for places towards the top of the table.”
“I think those games are really important for us because then we can see where we are and how far we have to go and what we have to do for that,” Wullaert adds.
Fortuna’s aims for the first couple of seasons are mainly about “progress” rather than big results, though the club wants to be in the top half of the table with the Netherlands’ best.
“Starting season three, four and five, we are really going to be checked on results,” Breukers says. “Eventually, we want to be the champion of the Netherlands and play in the Champions League. It's not that we're saying, 'Okay, in year three or year four, we need to be there.' But it's also not the case that we want to wait 10 years to get there."
Then there's the social side. Fortuna aren't just targeting sporting success. They want to make an impact that goes beyond the game – one which is embodied by players like Muhtaj and Wullaert, who are already proving themselves forces for good.
“If you look at our province, Limburg, there was literally no club playing professional football here,” Breukers adds.
“For the younger girls who are living here and who are from Sittard and our province, our area, in the past they needed to go to the north of the Netherlands or to Belgium or Germany.
“Now, they can just stay here and have the possibility or the dream to become a professional football player in their own area.
"That was one of the first reasons [for this project] and why we think we can make a difference.”
Offering more and more girls in the area the chance to play professional football is just one of the plans being constantly worked and improved on by a club that is only just getting started, but promises to have an impact across the region, the country and way, way beyond.