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Global Mar 08, 2016

Hummel marks International Women’s Day with hijab-friendly uniform for Afghanistan national team

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Playing soccer has been a struggle for women in Afghanistan. But on Tuesday the Afghan Football Federation and cult-classic Danish gear company Hummel marked International Women’s Day by rolling out historic new uniforms for the resilient country’s national teams.

The women’s kit includes an integrated hijab, “which will allow them to compete on an equal footing with international sides from across the world,” in the stirring words of Hummel’s promotional materials.

Khalida_Popal_LOWThe simple act of playing soccer – especially for women and girls, even in hijab coverings – is something of a revolutionary act in Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime banned the sport and brutally oppressed women during its reign from 1996-2001. The women’s national team was founded by four aspiring players in 2005, and has taken root despite death threats and social backlash in a virulently male-dominated culture where war and suffering has been a constant for most of the past half-century.

“For a country like Afghanistan, wearing the national uniform, is a kind of power, a tool to give self-confidence for a woman,” said former women’s national team captain Khalida Popal, an outspoken activist who earned 20 caps for her country before being forced to relocate to Denmark to ensure her own safety. “That makes you feel powerful.

“Football gave me an identity … I’m the person football made me.”

Popal now works for Hummel and consulted with the company’s designers on this uniform, a custom-made line with lovingly-crafted details inspired by the imagery – lions, mountains, calligraphy, traditional dress – of a beautiful, but beleaguered nation.

“It was amazing because it showed us how we could design the Afghan motif in the form of this lion [the teams’ nickname] which really represented the courage the Afghan women’s team had in terms of performing on the pitch,” said Hummel designer Paul Fitzgerald.

“It’s a design Hummel is extremely proud of.”

A chic global soccer brand through much of the 1980s and ’90s, the Danish gear outfit hit on hard times at the end of the century. But it has risen from bankruptcy to revitalized retro phenomenon under the quirky leadership of owner Christian Stadil, who speaks of a “Utopic vision and promise” and has placed progressive corporate citizenship at the heart of his company’s ethos.

Christian StadilThat includes providing gear, funding and support to Afghanistan’s national teams (whose history dates back to 1922) and domestic league, along with similar partnerships in Sierra Leone, Haiti and possibly more to come.

“On an international level, coming out of the international headquarters in Denmark, the company is always looking for opportunities to get involved with these type of projects. Our mission statement with the company is, making the world a better place through sport – primarily through soccer,” said Jeff Duback, head of Hummel’s Boston-based United States operations, in an appearance on the Keeper Notes podcast last month. “So we’re looking for these opportunities.

IMG_2202“We don’t even have a distributor in Afghanistan. We don’t actually sell a lot of product there – although there’s a lot of counterfeit product that gets sold!” he added. “So we’re not doing it to build revenue. It’s not like we’ve signed Brazil and now all of a sudden we’ve got Hummel product everywhere in Brazil and it becomes a big business. It’s really being done because the owners of Hummel worldwide, as well as all the people that work there, really believe there’s this opportunity to use the world’s sport to help people everywhere.”

Hummel outfits iconic left-wing German FC St. Pauli and a handful of other professional clubs, but has built its return to the business with a focus on an identity Duback dubs “a historically iconic team brand with a whole lot of fashion.”

The company’s memorable twin-chevron logo – forever associated with the lovable Denmark men’s national team side that won the 1992 European Championship against all odds – is familiar to middle-aged soccer lovers. Now it’s being introduced to a new generation, with the added bonus of Stadil’s “Company Karma” philosophy.

Afghan jersey, red frontAfghan jersey, white“We don’t sponsor the biggest teams in the world, but we make partnerships with teams and clubs with a story to tell, like Afghanistan,” said Stadil. “We try to meet the Afghan people where they are, and right now that is by helping the women play football with or without a hijab.”

As Duback noted in his Keeper Notes appearance, his corporation is eager to grow its presence in the United States on multiple levels and has partnered with Good Sports, a non-profit that distributes sports gear to children of need in inner-city communities across the U.S. (When clubs or teams gear up with Hummel, the company donates a set number of soccer balls per team to Good Sports.)

In a similar spirit to the hijab shirt design, Hummel say they offer women’s-specific cuts in all products and Duback emphasized his eagerness to sign professional players to shoe deals.

Those chevrons might soon become a more common sight on North American shores.

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