Afghanistan's national soccer team has united the nation in joy after claiming the country's first-ever international trophy in the sport.
The Afghan national men's team beat the title holders and tournament favorites India 2-0 in the final in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, to clinch the South Asian Football Federation championship.
The team's triumph at the Dasarath Rangasala Stadium late on September 11 sparked wild scenes of celebration and an outpouring of patriotic pride back in Afghanistan -- something not often seen in a country plagued by deep-seated political, ethnic, and religious divisions.
After the game's final whistle, thousands of Afghans gathered at the National Olympic Stadium in Kabul, waving national flags and cheering.
Fans in cars and on motorbikes joined others on foot to blow horns and dance throughout the night. Celebratory gunfire also rang out, prompting police intervention.
"I'm so happy. I'm going mad with happiness," said Habibullah, a Kabul resident. "I'm out on the street barefoot. We're all very happy."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai greeted and congratulated the players at the Kabul airport upon their return on September 12, calling it a victory for "all Afghans around the country."
Afghanistan is ranked 139th in the world
, with India in 145th place. It was Afghanistan's first championship in the South Asian tournament, while India has won the event six times, including the last two in 2009 and 2011.
Hamid, a student from Kabul, said the win was revenge for the Afghan team's humiliating 4-0 loss to India when the two sides met in the 2011 final in New Delhi.
"I'm very happy that Afghanistan won the tournament," he said. "I want to send my congratulations to the whole nation."
Afghanistan goalkeeper Mansur Faqiryar, who was chosen "man of the match," said: "I'm proud of my whole country. I congratulate my dear countrymen."
Homayoon Kargar, the Afghan coach, said he hoped the victory would bring peace and unity in Afghanistan. "You can't imagine how big this moment is for our country, our fans, our team, and me," he was quoted as saying by Afghan media after the match.
Soccer Bouncing Back
Karzai has promised to reward the national team and the coaching staff for their heroics, with Afghan media reports suggesting each player and staff member will receive an apartment in the capital.
Several Afghan governors have already sent invitations for the national team to visit their provinces. In Herat Province, local politicians and businessmen have already raised some $100,000 to donate to the Afghan Football Federation.
Ali Bin al-Hussein, the vice president of FIFA, soccer's world governing body, heaped praise on the Afghan team for their achievement. He was quoted by Goalnepal.com as saying, "The progress of Afghan football is an inspiration to us all."
Afghanistan, a founding member of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954, has a long history of soccer, but the sport had suffered because of decades of war. During the Taliban's rule soccer was not banned, but the sport was neglected and stadiums were routinely used as sites for public executions.
Soccer and other sports have surged in popularity since the end of Taliban rule in 2001. Afghanistan's eight-team pro soccer league
this year entered a second season. And last month, Kabul hosted its first international soccer match in a decade, with Afghanistan beating archrival Pakistan 3-0.
The FIFA-sanctioned international friendly
at Kabul's Afghanistan Football Federation Stadium on August 20 was the first since Afghanistan hosted Turkmenistan in a friendly in 2003.