Kelly Lindsey: The former footballer who has transformed women’s lives across the world

Former football player Kelly Lindsey is the next inspiring guest to feature on The Game Changers podcast.

Lindsey starred for the US national team as a player, but was forced to retire at just 23-years-old following a succession of injuries.

She moved onto coaching, holding roles in the US, Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Morocco. Last year, Lindsey was appointed as performance director at Lewes FC, the first gender equal football club in the world.

Lindsey may have worked in football all over the world, but her journey started in Nebraska in the United States. She described how she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her older brother and take to the football pitch.

“I was only four years old,” she said. “So when they went to sign me up, I wasn’t old enough to start playing. They said I had to wait one more year unless my dad would coach.

“My dad is not a soccer guy. He was not a coach, but he became my first football coach. And he led me all the way into high school.”

It’s a good thing Lindsey’s dad took on the hard task of becoming a football coach. His daughter went on to become the first draft pick for the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2001.

After she was selected by San Jose CyberRays, Lindsey played in the league for three years, but was then forced to retire due to persistent knee injuries.

“You know when you can’t get out of bed at night to go to the bathroom, when you can’t actually sit and get up, you feel like you’re 90 years old when you’re only in your early twenties,” Lindsey recalled.

“I just sort of hit that phase of my life of like, is it worth it? Am I gonna be able to walk when I’m older? Can I keep doing this? How much longer?

“And so about midway through that season, I called my head coach. I remember driving along the road and I just picked up the phone and called him and said, listen, I think I’m gonna have to retire at the end of this year. I just, I physically can’t do this anymore.”

Lindsey moved into the world of coaching, taking charge of Sky Blue FC in 2009 and winning the Women’s Professional Soccer League title with the club.

In 2016, she took up the unlikely role of head coach of the Afghanistan women’s national football team. Lindsey explained how she had befriended the team’s founder Khalida Popal at a sports leadership camp in the US.

“We just started chatting. I think at first she wanted some advice and eventually she was like, we have a big project and we need a coach, and you seem to understand who we are and what we need.

“So we said, we’d give it a try. First of all, we’d go around the world and try to find Afghan players who could help lead the women’s team to really become successful on the international level.

“Our goal was nationalism will trump sexism in the country. So how do we build a successful team that the men of Afghanistan will be proud of?

“Because if they’re proud of a sports team, it doesn’t matter if they’re men or women. If someone’s winning, suddenly countries buy into female sports.

“It just sort of escalated into something quite beautiful and quite powerful for the women, which was way bigger than I ever imagined. You know, football is football, sport is sport, but it does transform lives.”

Lindsey is known for her courage in tackling some of the more difficult issues in women’s football, including showing support for survivors of sexual abuse.

Afghanistan’s female footballer players were subject to sexual abuse by Afghan Football Federation (AFF) officials from 2013 to 2018, as first published in The Guardian in November 2018.

AFF President Keramuddin Karim was banned for life from football by FIFA as a result of the allegations in June 2019.

Lindsey was initially left appalled by FIFA’s reaction to the case, claiming the governing body “didn’t want to put their hands on it”. This prompted her to create the Fearless Football campaign.

“Fearless Football was a collaboration of a number of officials around the world who came together and said, we need to raise our voice,” she said.

“We need to make sure that FIFA and other international, national, local governing bodies start to pay attention, that we start to put a structure and a process in place to solve this.

“And we hold them accountable. I mean really trying to hold FIFA accountable – you might not solve it, but it’s your responsibility to start.

“It’s your responsibility to have the dialogue, it’s your responsibility to think about the structure, and for me, it’s their responsibility to fund it, to make sure that around the world, every single player and coach knows exactly where to go to if these cases arise, because almost every case I heard was the same patterns.”

Lindsey was also part of a small group, including former coach Haley Carter and Popal, which lobbied for the women’s football team to be flown out of Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover last year.

“When the first wheels went up and we had about 74 on that first flight, I’ll never forget,” she recalled. “We had 10 seconds of celebration. And then we said, all right, we gotta get the rest, everyone back on point.

“We just, we didn’t even take the time to enjoy it or celebrate it. It was just back to, who can we get next? How do we break this down one more time?”

Lindsey has now moved to Lewes, a county town in the heart of Sussex, to become the club’s head of performance.

A partner of GiveMeSport Women, Lewes FC is the only club in the world to offer its male and female players equal pay, and is 100 percent fan-owned.

Despite the progress being made at Lewes, Lindsey has been left shocked by the attitudes to women’s football around the rest of the UK.

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m quite shocked. I just feel like it’s a first world country. It’s 2022 and we’re still having to claim that women’s sports is acceptable, it boggles my mind.

“I’ve seen that from the outside and that’s one reason I really wanted to come to England. Is this really what’s going on? I mean, it is like the infrastructure of this country is football and 50 percent of the population doesn’t get to play at the same level.”

Lindsey does have hope for the future, however. When asked what made her most excited about women’s football in the years to come, she responded: “All the future generations of women. They’re going to be the huge change moving forward.”

This article was produced in partnership with The Game Changers podcast, which is supported by Sport England. You can listen to the full episode with Kelly Lindsey here.

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