Politics kicked aside in Afghan football game

Real-world tensions disappeared on the pitch as Afghanistan hosted Pakistan for first time in decades.

    Politics kicked aside in Afghan football game
    Afghans rallied their team to a 3-0 win against Pakistan [Ali M Latifi/Al Jazeera]

    Kabul, Afghanistan - Kabul's Football Federation Stadium was awash with the black, red and green of the Afghan flag, as crowds of anxious fans swarmed in to watch the first football match between Afghanistan and Pakistan held in the Afghan capital in more than three decades.

    In the hours leading up to Tuesday's match pitting the neighbouring nations against one another, much of the talk centred around the strained relations between the two countries.

    Coming a day after Afghanistan's Independence Day celebrations, which also reaffirmed the Durand Line, the 2,640-kilometre border separating Afghanistan from Pakistan, the political undertones of Tuesday's match seemed inescapable.

    As the crowds gathered at the entrance gates, the fear of violence was clearly on the minds of the security personnel. "Let us in! We are here to support our country!" young men shouted as the security guards threatened them with the clicking sounds of light stun guns. Through several checkpoints, fans and media alike had to contend with overzealous security wielding black batons and harsh words.

    We have come here after a long time and I pray to God that these two countries become more friendly.

    - Mohammed Aslam Khan, Pakistan national player

    But the intense security did not end at the gates. Dozens of police with riot shields and batons lined up behind the pitch shortly before the start of the friendly match. Elsewhere, three snipers were perched above the VIP section, where Shukria Barakzai, the MP from Kabul, and Keramuddin Keram, governor of the northern province of Panjshir, were among the notable figures cheering on the Afghan team.

    Despite the intense security, once inside the newly built stadium, the crowd left the chaos at the entry gates.

    Speaking to Al Jazeera from the stands, fans said they came in the spirit of brotherhood and friendly competition. "It doesn't make a difference [who wins]. There will be winners and losers, but we have faith in the lion-hearted boys of Afghanistan," Jawid Ahmad Mosazai said as he proudly held an Afghan flag above his head.

    Neighbourly welcome

    Even with an apparent absence of Pakistan boosters in the crowd, members of the Pakistani national team seemed to sense the brotherhood. Mohammed Aslam Khan said he was enjoying the hospitality he was receiving in the Afghan capital. Khan said, "We have come here after a long time, and I pray to God that these two countries become more friendly".

    But Khan's own lineage - his great-grandfather was a Pashtun born in Peshawar before the Durand Line made the city part of what is now Pakistan - embodies the complicated relationship between the two nations.

    Still, for the 94-minute duration of the match, the cooperation showed. Near the end of the game when a Pakistani player was injured, an Afghan player was the first to assist him.

    For many in the sold-out, 7,000-person crowd, the football match offered a rare respite from double-digit unemployment rates and a Taliban "spring offensive" that has purposely targeted the Afghan capital.

    The sense of unity among the multi-ethnic crowd was in stark contrast to football matches during the rule of the Taliban, when the games were interrupted for prayers or public punishments. It was exactly those images that the organisers of the event, who commissioned seven Afghan pop singers to record an anthem of pirozi, or victory, for the event, hoped to wash away.

    The match, said Shafiq Gawahiri, commissioner of the Afghan Premier League, was meant to portray another picture of Afghanistan to the world, "the joy of the people, the hope of the young generation".

    From an athletic perspective, Gawahiri told Al Jazeera the event was meant to "show to the outside world that Afghans can play a game and be fair while competing against other people".

    The athletic prowess of the Afghan national team was on full display as they dominated the match. Sanjar Ahmad's goal, 20 minutes into the game, quickly earned chants of  "Long Live Afghanistan!" and ecstatic flag-waving from the crowd. Two near back-to-back goals in the second half secured the Afghan victory.

    Echos from the past

    For Rahmat Ahmadzai, Tuesday's victory was a reminder of when he helped lead the Afghan team to triumph in 1977, the last time Afghanistan played Pakistan in Kabul. He was, however, shocked by the hostile behavior of the security guards, including threats to hit fans and journalists with heavy walkie-talkies and black batons.

    But his memories of that day during the rule of Mohammad Daoud Khan, the first president of Afghanistan, showed a striking similarity to much of the talk ahead of Tuesday's match.

    "Because of the politics of the two countries, the Afghan people wanted very badly for us to beat Pakistan," he said of the Ghazi Stadium crowd, which he said seemed more vocal and numerous than previous matches. Ahmadzai recalls that even for Daoud Khan, who only a year earlier had started a proxy war with Pakistan, the victory was of great importance. "For the first time in the history of Afghan football, Daoud Khan personally handed each player 5,000 afghanis as a gift for their victory."

    But for the Afghanistan supporters in the crowd on Tuesday, they hoped to leave such hostilities in the past.

    Facing the pitch, where a Pakistani flag waved only a few feet from the Afghan flag, Matiullah, a fan in his mid-thirties, told Al Jazeera, "If you look out onto the field, the relationship between the two nations looks great".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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