KABUL // Afghanistan’s cricket team received a heroes’ welcome Saturday as crowds lined the streets and packed a stadium in to greet the players after they qualified for the 2015 World Cup.
The team was met by an official reception at Kabul airport before being driven through the war-battered city for a jubilant evening of speeches, dancing and live music.
Cricket only became popular in Afghanistan as refugees flooded back from Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
“We know the roads to Kabul are insecure, but I couldn’t resist risking it to come for this,” said Mohammadullah, 28, who travelled from the eastern province of Paktia. “Me and my friends rented two cars and hit the road to welcome our team back. Cricket is a sport which can bring all Afghans together.”
Security was high for the players’ vehicle convoy and at the national cricket stadium.
“I have never been this happy in my life,” team captain Mohammad Nabi told the crowd. “I feel proud and want to congratulate the Afghan nation for the victory and the historic achievement.”
Like many teammates, Nabi, 28, learnt cricket in a refugee camp in Pakistan after his parents fled Afghanistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion. He hit the winning runs when Afghanistan beat Kenya by seven wickets in Sharjah a week ago to secure a place in the 2015 World Cup.
The stadium in Kabul was filled to capacity with cheerful fans waving national flags as the players showed off a golden cup marking their success. An array of pop and traditional singers then took to the stage to entertain the happy throng.
“This achievement tells us that we will be victorious in the future. It will inspire all Afghans,” the Afghanistan Cricket Board chief Noor Mohammad Murad said.
Among those celebrating was Alina Barekzai, 17, a member of the women’s national cricket team.
“I am so much excited to see them go to the World Cup,” she said. “Now I hope the government will also pay attention to women’s cricket here.”
Afghanistan are drawn in the same group as the joint-hosts Australia and New Zealand as well as England, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and one other qualifier. The squad has received a US$1 million (Dh3.67m) windfall to help them prepare.
President Hamid Karzai watched the match against Kenya on television and sent his congratulations.
A Taliban spokesman said that the militant group had no comment on the team’s success.
* Agence France-Presse