KABUL // Afghanistan's football team sparked celebrations across the war-battered nation on Tuesday after securing a convincing 3-0 victory over Pakistan in the first international match in Kabul since 2003.
A gleeful 6,000 capacity crowd packed the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) Stadium for a game that unleashed a wave of patriotic pride in the country.
Afghanistan, ranked 139th in the world, just above Pakistan, gave home fans little to worry about, dominating the game throughout and going three goals ahead midway through the second half.
Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, a vice president of Fifa, congratulated the Afghan side. He tweeted: "A historic day for Afghan football. Congrats to Afghanistan on hosting their first international match in over a decade and winning it!"
The match was promoted as a symbol of football's ability to foster peace and unite countries in a shared love of sport, but the result was celebrated by many Afghans as a sweet victory.
"I am a huge football fan, and this match was so important for us," said Shabir Ahmad, 27, a government employee at the match. "There are a lot of rivalries between Afghanistan and Pakistan, even if this match was meant to boost friendship."
Political ties are badly strained between Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan, which blame each other for violence plaguing both countries.
Many in Afghanistan are convinced that Pakistan pulls the strings behind the 12-year insurgency that has raged since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001. Only a few women were in the stands, and there was no sign of Pakistani support despite thousands of Pakistanis living and working in the Afghan capital.
Security was intense, with several rings of armed riot police and soldiers beating back frustrated and ticketless fans locked outside of the stadium.
Kabul has been hit by a series of militant attacks this year, including near the president's palace and on the Supreme Court. The Taliban have vowed to step up violence as elections loom early next year.
One spectator, Ahmadzai Fazeli, 25, said that insurgents at a Taliban roadblock in the Wardak province had wished the team well.
"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 said. "Now I am here feeling very patriotic and happy."
Before the game, tempers frayed as the police struggled to control unruly crowds pushing to get access to the game, which was attended by some senior Afghan officials and foreign diplomats, including the British ambassador.
Tickets cost between 100-300 Afghanis (Dh7.35) for the game.
The final whistle triggered celebrations as players paraded the national flag in front of dancing spectators. The game, which was played on an artificial pitch funded by Fifa, was the first home international since Afghanistan played Turkmenistan in 2003.
Afghanistan last played Pakistan, ranked 167th, in Kabul in 1977.
Football was not banned under the Taliban's rule, from 1996 to 2001, but the old Ghazi Stadium in Kabul was a notorious venue for executions, stonings and mutilations.
Tuesday's game, at the separate AFF Stadium in the city, will be followed on Wednesday by the start of the second season of the eight-team Afghan Premier League.
A return match between the national teams is scheduled to be played in the Pakistani city of Lahore in December.
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE