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KABUL — It’s been a decade since international soccer came to Kabul, but perhaps longer since the term “friendly” has been used to describe any interaction between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On Tuesday, the bitter political rivals brought their national soccer teams together for what is known as a “friendly” (the game had no bearing on FIFA tournaments), but was certainly much more than that to the roughly 7,000 fans who thronged the spare, plastic stands of Afghan Football Federation Stadium on a warm summer evening.

The 3-0 drubbing by Afghanistan, of course, will not alter the rocky course the relationship between Pakistan and their neighbors have been taking for years, but it certainly seemed a healthier way to express rivalries than the regular violence taking place on the border.

At the very least, it produced a temporary swell of national pride, with many fans painting their faces with the national colors, waving flags and cheering on just about anything Afghan, including the soldiers there to keep order.

Sports officials and fans alike couldn’t help attaching a little more meaning to this game, given the political undertones and the 30 years of war Afghanistan has suffered.

Afghan coach Yousaf Kargar didn’t shy away from setting lofty goals for the match well beyond the pitch.

“Afghanistan suffered a lot through three decades of war,” he said. “For us, this is more important than winning or losing, and the aim of the game is to promote and develop good relations between the youth of Afghanistan and Pakistan, create good relations between the sportsmen of Afghanistan and Pakistan and, also, through sports, we want to develop good relations between the people of both countries.”

Sahar Ishaq, captain of the Pakistani squad, said the match against Afghanistan had meaning beyond the score.

“This is the first time we are here and we have brought the message of brotherhood, of friendship,” he said. “We are Muslims and neighbor countries.”

Muhammad Omar, who closed his car parts shop for a couple days and traveled all the way from Helmand province, in the country’s far south, to attend, said he thought the game could be a step toward improved relations between Kabul and Islamabad.

“It is very good for friendship between countries,” he said.

Cricket is king in Afghanistan, but soccer is wildly popular and the fledgling Afghan Premier League has been drawing big crowds since its inception last year.

While Afghan is a soccer-mad country, with many fans displaying their club loyalty — England’s Manchester United and Spain’s FC Barcelona are popular — with stickers on their cars and embroidered pillows in the back window, its national team has had a rocky history, oft-interrupted by war. In fact, Tuesday was only the second international match the country has ever hosted, according to the Afghanistan Football Federation.

The Taliban famously banned most sports when they took over Afghanistan in 1996, turning a soccer stadium into a venue for public executions, and Afghan sports teams have had a hard time attracting visiting teams since the U.S. invaded, knocking the Taliban from power in 2001.

Despite tight security and bursting stands, the crowd was ecstatic to finally see the national team play on home turf, cheering loudly even for goal kicks, and going ballistic for each of the team’s three goals. They were cheering for more than the game, said Mohammad Nasim, a 56-year-old rock quarry worker.

“We are here to watch the match, but it means a lot more because we have suffered a lot and maybe this game can help bring peace.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

druzin.heath@stripes.com Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes


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