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Afghanistan, Pakistan To Play Historic Soccer Game


Afghanistan's national soccer team, pictured ahead of a match with Tajikistan in 2011, is ranked 139th in the world, 28 places ahead of 167th-ranked Pakistan.
Afghanistan and Pakistan aim to cast aside recent diplomatic tensions when Kabul hosts its regional rival in a soccer friendly for the first time in more than 30 years.

Security is expected to be tight for the FIFA-sanctioned match, set to take place in front of a capacity crowd at Kabul's Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) Stadium on August 20.

The Afghan squad, currently ranked 139th in the world, is favored over the 167th-ranked Pakistan. But Afghan national coach Homayoon Kargar says winning is not the most important outcome.

(UPDATE: Afghanistan won the match, 3-0.)

"The match is only a friendly game. Even more important than the result is that we can, through soccer, create better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and restore our friendship," Kargar says. "As you know, diplomatic relations between the two countries have been increasingly troubled."

Afghanistan's relations with its eastern neighbor have become severely strained in recent months, with both sides engaging in a war of words and cross-border violence.

Wali, a resident of Kabul, welcomes the match but is pessimistic about its ability to bridge the two countries' differences.

"I'm not convinced that the soccer game between Afghanistan and Pakistan will have a positive influence on the security situation in Afghanistan or relations between the two governments," he says. "The Pakistani government has a strategy toward Afghanistan and, until they achieve their goals, they will continue to interfere in Afghanistan's affairs."

Soccer was not banned under the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the sport suffered during the decades of war and violence.
Soccer was not banned under the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the sport suffered during the decades of war and violence.

Others, however, are more optimistic. Jawed, another resident of Kabul, says he and his friends have all bought tickets to attend the game. Tickets cost between 100 and 300 afghanis ($2 to $5), and the 6,000-seat stadium is reportedly sold out.

Jawed hopes sport can succeed where politics has failed. "I’m very happy about the game. God willing, it will be a success for Afghans and the national team," he says. "The relationship between the countries should be one of friendship and neighborliness."

'Return To Normality'

Organizers in Pakistan say the match will "create history" as the two national teams meet for the first time in 36 years.

Afghanistan and Pakistan regularly held sporting events in the past, but diplomatic ties were cut after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The ensuing civil war and Taliban rule prevented the two sides from meeting on the pitch.

Afghanistan last hosted an international soccer match in 2003, against Turkmenistan. Pakistan has not hosted a top-level international sporting event since Pakistani militants attacked a touring Sri Lankan cricket team near Lahore in 2009, leaving six Sri Lankan players injured and eight Pakistanis dead.

AFF Secretary-General Sayed Aghazada has said the match with Pakistan has the potential to be a milestone in Afghanistan's sporting history.

"It shows that, after a very difficult period, we are returning to normality. Afghan football has improved in terms of organization and infrastructure, and we now believe that football can play an even bigger role in our country," he told, the official website of soccer's world governing body.

Soccer has surged in popularity since the end of Taliban rule in 2001. Soccer was not banned under the Taliban but the sport suffered and stadiums were routinely used as sites for public executions.

The international friendly will provide a good test for both countries, which are competing at the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship in Nepal that will run from August 31 to September 11.

Afghanistan is in Pool B alongside the Maldives, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, while Pakistan is in Pool A with India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Afghanistan finished as runners-up to India in the last SAFF championship in 2011.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.