From refugee to PSG and beyond: The striking story of Nadia Nadim

·6 min read

Afghan-born PSG striker Nadia Nadim helped take her team to victory in the French league last weekend – and then promptly announced she was leaving the club. It’s the latest chapter in her roller-coaster story, told in her memoirs 'Mon Histoire'. The headstrong striker's slogan is “dream big” – and she does.

Nadim was just 10 when her father, a general in the Afghan army, was murdered by the Taliban. Living in fear and unable to work, her widowed mother saw little future for her five girls. She sold her valuables to pay a people smuggler to get them to the UK.

She recounts that time and the flight to freedom, without pathos, in her book: the perilous journey on false passports first by plane, locked in a lorry for days with little food and water, the acute fear tempered by her mother's towering strength.

When the five females finally arrived at their destination and the lorry doors opened, they found themselves not in Britain, but in Denmark.

Listen to the interview with Nadia Nadim in the Spotlight on France podcast

Nadim's life, already turned upside down, was to be changed forever as she began to learn the "easiest language of all": football.

"When I started playing football in a refugee camp as a kid and I fell in love with the game, I didn’t even know that women footballers could reach this level,” she says, relaxing at PSG’s Parc des Princes after a training session.

“But I kept training hard, kept believing, and slowly step by step we’re here," pointing to the legendary stadium behind her.

'I hate losing'

Nadim played professionally for Fortuna Hjørring (she still plays for the Danish national team), New Jersey, Portland Thorns, Manchester City and joined PSG in January 2019.

She scored 13 goals in the 2019/20 season with PSG and says she "hates losing".

In her book she writes about the "fury” that “fuels” her game and that she "didn't see much of that fire among the French women players".

In person, in front of the club's press team, she's less critical: "You need to want to win and we needed more of that in our team. I think we’ve got there, and I've been a part of that, definitely. Our training sessions are now harder than our games."

On 4 June, she helped the team become French champions for the first time ever.

No more poverty

Nadim’s aunt is Afghan superstar Aryana Sayeed. Fire and ambition run in the family.

Her father taught his daughters to be tough, beating her elder sister when she dared to cry.

"We were like soldiers who always had to get up and go back into battle, no matter who our opponents were," she writes.

“I definitely have passion in my genes," she laughs. "My dad was really competitive, being a general, and he played sport himself. My mum was really competitive too.”

Her experience of losing freedom under the Taliban and living in poverty in a refugee camp in Denmark further strengthened the desire to succeed.

“What I’ve been through as a kid forged me into this person I am. I really enjoy winning and I want to succeed no matter what because I don’t want to go back to where I was as a kid being poor.”

Feeling ‘at home’ at PSG

The desire to succeed has driven her ever since.

She played one season at Man City in 2018, but the climate, both on and off the pitch, meant she wasn’t happy in the club.

“Life is too short to be in places and do stuff I don’t want to do because there’s no need for it. Why should I?” she says nonchalantly.

When she got the chance to come to PSG in January 2019, the chance to wear the same shirt as "Zlatan, Mbappé and Silva" was "a dream come true”.

She "felt at home right away” in such a diverse team.

“I didn’t feel like an outsider because I look different, have a different skin colour or different beliefs, because there are so many people like me.

“That’s one of the things I love the most, I’m not the only one standing out,” she laughs.

Freedom to believe

Nadia Nadim doesn’t wear the veil but being a Muslim is important to her.

“Religion has kept me grounded and able to cope with stuff happening around me," she says, adding that she feels relaxed in the club and prays "as much as I can".

"I know if you look at me and I’m playing football then you’re like: ‘Oh she can’t be a Muslim’ but I think that’s such a wrong conception of what Islam is or what a religion is. In the end it’s there for you to be a good human being...and I think I am.”

In her book she refers to the “difficulties of being a Muslim in Europe at the moment" because of the way terrorists have hijacked Islam.

“Unfortunately you see trend of Islamophobia and this fear of religion. It’s upsetting because I think a minority of Muslim people are ruining the religion’s name.”

Dreaming big

Nadim always knew she needed a second career and began studying medicine while playing professionally in Denmark. She’s now close to qualifying as a surgeon, specialising in reconstructive surgery.

Moving from performing on the pitch to the operating theatre is not such a big leap – one form of intensity will be replaced with another.

“What I love most is the pressure and responsibility that’s on your shoulders. It makes you feel alive. I guess that’s probably the crossover.”

Having been helped a lot through her life, working as a doctor is her way of paying back.

“I’m probably going to be the last person who can make an impact on some person’s life – that interests me tremendously," she says. "Being able to do that for other people will be amazing.”

And then there’s the money factor. She admits to "living well" but the huge gap between the women's and men's game means she isn't raking in millions. She wants more.

“I know I have a brilliant mind and I don’t want it to go to waste. As a doctor I’m probably going to make shit tonnes of money,” she laughs.

“If you really want to bring change, you need to have total freedom in terms of finances because in the end if you have brilliant ideas you need investors. And if someone’s hungry on the street they need food, not a hug." Even if, as she admits, “A hug helps."

No wonder she's nicknamed “the bomber”.

Listen and subscribe to the Spotlight on France podcasts here

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