“I’m only 32 but I feel like I’ve experienced a lot more, like 200 years of life, in bad ways and good ways,” Nadia Nadim says near the end of an hour-long conversation that has been more exhilarating than sobering. We have moved from the way her life “changed in the blink of an eye” when the Taliban stopped her going to school at the age of 11 and then murdered her father. She has reflected on how her mother found a way to help her and her four sisters flee Afghanistan. We have remembered how she fell for football in a refugee camp in Denmark and her life changed forever. Nadim has since played 92 times for Denmark and, as a prolific goalscorer, become one of the world’s most significant women footballers.
She has played professionally in Denmark, New Jersey, Portland, Manchester and now Paris where, before lockdown, she helped PSG reach the Champions League quarter-finals. They were due to face Arsenal last month. She speaks seven languages fluently and is one semester from graduating as a reconstructive surgeon. Meanwhile, during this interview, she swears like a trooper and makes me laugh. Nadim is at home with her family in Denmark, finding solace and hope in lockdown life while reflecting on a past like no other.
“When I have time to reflect I’m like ‘Holy shit!” she says. “I don’t think many people can say they’ve experienced all this in their entire lifetime. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think I have more insight than most people when it comes to other human beings, culture, religion, language. This has been built inside me from different worlds. Does that make sense?”
It does because we’ve just discussed how retirement from football will be more bearable for Nadim as she can replace one form of intensity with another. When a career ends for most footballers they understandably lament the fact that nothing will match the heightened sensations they experience on the pitch. It is different for Nadim. Working as a surgeon will feel even more dramatic than playing for PSG or scoring the opening goal in the European Championship final as she did when Denmark faced the Netherlands in 2017.
“When they ask me: ‘How does it feel to score a goal?’” Nadim says. “I’m like: ‘It’s really wonderful.’ But I experience similar emotions or adrenaline rush inside the operating room. Not so long ago I played a game and I was really tired. But soon after the game I assisted one of our doctors in a kidney surgery. I was standing there for two hours, in the same position, holding an instrument so he could see better. I was hurting everywhere because of the match. But I still was feeling so great and my pulse was racing. I had this this rush of adrenaline, thinking: ‘Holy shit, this is so cool. I’m literally looking inside someone’s stomach.’”
Nadim laughs, as she does with infectious frequency, before becoming more thoughtful. “There will come a time, as a surgeon, when all the responsibility is on me and it’s going to be more extreme than anything I’ve experienced.”
I once wrote a book about heart transplant surgeons and so I know even Zlatan Ibrahimovic would seem self-effacing if he ended up in this different world. Surgeons can be fascinating company but they are invariably driven by huge ego. “I’ve experienced that as well,” Nadim says. “I don’t know if reconstructive surgeons have the biggest egos. But you need an ego, and huge confidence, when cutting up a human being. You have to fix the situation. These no-shit doctors inspire me. I’ve always been near doctors who are headstrong and know what they’re gonna do, and how they’re gonna do it.”
Of course the great footballers also have swaggering confidence. “Definitely. I’ve not seen anyone with low confidence make a big difference in football. If I see someone shaking, I’m not going to think: ‘Oh, I have such confidence in you.’”
But there is also a necessary tenderness within reconstructive surgery. Rebuilding a face or a limb after a car crash or bombing requires delicate work amid devastation. It is work for which Nadim is equipped because her compassion runs even deeper than her confidence. “I know the value of helping a person when they have no hope,” she says. “I’m a walking reminder of that. All the help I was given in my life made me the person I am today. So I really want to offer this help. Someone’s face can be blown up and it’s hard for them to exist. I’m going to give them some of their identity back.”
Nadim’s personal story is worth examining if you’ve not heard it before. But we both want to talk more about the lesser-known corners of her experience. Rather than reliving the nightmare of how the Taliban made her father disappear when she was 12, Nadim discusses more complicated feelings. When her mum looks at her, and considers the courage and fire which have enabled her to achieve so much over the past 20 years, she sees Nadim’s father.
“It makes me happy,” Nadim says “because I remember most that he was a cool person. He could do everything. On the other hand I’m sad because for the majority of my life I haven’t experienced my dad. Even the time I did experience, most of it I don’t remember because I was young. So there are mixed feelings. But I still have my mother and she’s a really cool lady. Even before the Taliban came, she knew the power of education. That’s something she’s really given to us. She also used to try teach other kids in Afghanistan. It takes one person to make a change and she’ll always try to be that person.”
Nadim has changed lives. She tells a story of how, during last year’s World Cup, she spoke on a panel about empowering young women through football. “I’m sitting among all these beautiful ladies from around the world and everyone starts sharing their stories about what they had to overcome to play football. At first I thought it was really sad. Nowadays we’re fighting for equality, especially in terms of pay, which is great. But in other parts of the world women and girls are not even allowed to touch a fucking ball. It’s crazy.
“This girl put her hand up. She’s from Pakistan. She starts half-crying, saying: ‘I can’t believe Nadia Nadim is here.’ She says how she used to play football in this tiny town in Pakistan. But everyone was saying girls could not play football because of her Muslim background. She said: ‘I was about to run away and never play the game again. But I came across your story and it made me believe I can play football too.’
“I’m a really emotional person but I don’t cry easily in front of people. But she made me tear up. Here we have this young girl from Pakistan saying: ‘You saved my life. I play football now and I’ve started a team in the area.’ She’s getting so much attention and she said: ‘This is thanks to you. You told your story and you said it was hard. But if you really love something, you should push it.’ I was like: ‘Wow.’ So many people don’t care what girls go through around the world. But it’s not impossible to get out of it and it doesn’t matter if it’s football or anything else you believe in. You have to maintain the hope.”
Football gave Nadim such hope as a refugee. It helped transform her life to the point where she was voted Denmark’s Person of the Year in 2017. Football has opened up the world to her and yet now, like the rest of us in lockdown, she is cut off from the game she loves. “I really miss it. Playing football with my teammates, playing the big matches. But we have a huge garden and we live in the country. So I can be outside, playing football on my own, like a kid. Before our interview I was out there for more than an hour, juggling, trying to learn new stuff, kicking the ball on to the garage wall. It’s cool. If I was in Paris it would be a different story. You live in an apartment and can’t go out.
“Denmark was one of the countries that reacted really quick [to Covid-19]. So we managed the situation really well. The numbers are flattening and we’re slowly opening up society again. [Two weeks ago] they started to let the youngsters, up to fifth grade, go back to school. We’re getting there.”
The contrast with the UK and the US is stark. Nadim has friends in New York and New Jersey, where she played for Sky Blue FC in the National Women’s Soccer League in 2014 and 2015. “Luckily the people I know are still safe. I hope that remains.”
Nadim exclaims when I say that it’s not easy in the US when Donald Trump, who last week suggested that injecting disinfectant might cure the coronavirus, is in power. “It’s crazy! Excuse my language but how the fuck is it possible he is in charge? Maybe this is a wake-up call to the world. Lots of other diseases are going down in terms of the people they kill – like influenza. In Denmark it’s been dramatically decreased. And that’s because people are starting to be more aware of hygiene.
“But I don’t think this is the last time we’re going to be seeing this kind of pandemic. We have to start preparing for the future because it might get even worse. Before this pandemic when people [in the West] saw news about other countries at war or experiencing misery it seemed alien. They’re just in the background – ‘these poor kids in Africa or Afghanistan’. No one really cares. But now everyone is feeling hit. I hope this brings the compassion and empathy that was being lost in our world.
“Like what does it mean to be human? It means you care for others. So even if you’re healthy and strong and seem to have no symptoms you need to stay home to save someone else. It’s not about you any more. So I hope people are going to be seeing this virus from that point of view and maybe later use their voice by voting in a certain way or speaking up about injustice. We need to learn lessons from this terrible situation.
“Right now you can bitch about being at home and think: ‘Oh, my life sucks.’ But you can also be grateful you live in a society where you can stay at home, and still have food and something over your head. If you get sick, there are doctors who are going to do their best to help you. It’s in your hands how you look at it. I still have hopes and dreams. I don’t know when we will get back to normal and I don’t really care because I’m living right now. I’m making the most of it. I’m going to do my best to have a better future, and an even better day tomorrow.”