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Historic Soccer Match Brings Unity To Afghanistan

For 90 minutes, at least, sport succeeded where politics has failed.

Afghanistan's resounding 3-0 home win over archrival Pakistan sparked scenes of wild celebration and outpouring of patriotic pride and unity -- something not often seen in a country plagued by deep-seated political, ethnic, and religious divisions.

A sellout crowd filled Kabul's Afghanistan Football Federation Stadium on August 20 to see the friendly, the first international match held in the Afghan capital in 10 years.

The final whistle sparked delirium as players paraded the national flag in front of dancing spectators. Crowds celebrated on the streets, bringing traffic to a standstill as fans danced and sang.

Thousands of others lingered in restaurants and coffee shops where they had assembled to watch the game, which was broadcast live.

Security was extremely tight at the game. More than 100 riot police lined the soccer pitch. Police officers performed full body checks and numerous bag searches as fans entered the packed 6,000-capacity stadium.

'I Cannot Express It Through Words'

Bilal Oroza, a member of the Afghan soccer team, said the victory was not only for the team but for the whole nation. "I'm so happy. I cannot express it through words," he said. "I want to congratulate, from the bottom of my heart, all of my country for our victory."

After Afghanistan, ranked 139th in the world, scored its third goal of the game, the Afghan TV commentator could not contain his excitement. "I wish I had wings and could fly over the pitch," he shouted. "I am proud that I am an Afghan."

Afghan footballers celebrate their 3-0 win against Pakistan.
Afghan footballers celebrate their 3-0 win against Pakistan.
Fans flocked from all over Afghanistan to attend the FIFA-sanctioned match. One was Ahmadzai Fazeli, who said that Taliban militants in central Wardak Province had wished the team good luck.

"On the way here, the Taliban stopped me. I told them I was going to the football match, and they happily let me pass," he was quoted as saying by the French news agency AFP. "Now, I am here feeling very patriotic and happy."

'Positive Signals Of Normalcy'

Afghanistan Football Federation Chairman Karamudeen Karim said the match "will open the door for other countries to visit Afghanistan and to play this fantastic game. The Afghanistan-Pakistan Friendship match will also give positive signals of normalcy in Afghanistan."

While the match was promoted as a symbol of the power of sport to inspire peace and unite nations in a shared love of sport, Afghanistan's triumph was celebrated by many Afghans as a sweet victory over Pakistan, an old and bitter enemy whom Afghans blame for much of the last three decades of war.

The game was played amid deteriorating diplomatic relations between Kabul and Islamabad in recent months, with both sides engaging in a war of words and cross-border violence. Both governments have blamed each other for the spiraling violence plaguing each side of their porous border.

WATCH: Afghanistan, Pakistan play first soccer match in 30 years.
Afghanistan, Pakistan Play First Soccer Match In 30 Years
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Homayoon Kargar, the coach of the Afghan team, sobbed in celebration after the final whistle. "I'm so proud that Afghanistan beat Pakistan," he told local media. "Pakistan has always looked down on us."

"I am a huge soccer fan, and this match was so important for us," Shabir Ahmad, a Kabul resident who attended the match, was quoted by AFP as saying. "There are a lot of rivalries between Afghanistan and Pakistan, even if this match was meant to boost friendship."

Ties Cut In 1979

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 had last hosted an international soccer match in 2003, against Turkmenistan.

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.

A second game between Afghanistan and Pakistan is scheduled for December in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is acting 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.