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International Football Returns to War-Ravaged Afghanistan

Pakistan's goalkeeper Saqib Hanif (L) jumps to make a save during a friendly football match against Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2013.
Afghanistan’s national football team beat neighboring Pakistan 3-0 in the first international match the war-ravaged country hosted in Kabul in a decade. The game was telecast live in Pakistan, and officials on both sides of the border hope the increased sporting ties will help boost efforts to ease bilateral political tensions.

The so-called “Friendship Match” played in a newly-built stadium in Kabul was the first encounter between the national teams of Afghanistan and Pakistan after a gap of 36 years. It also marked the return of international football to the war-ravaged nation since 2003 when the Afghan team won a game against visiting Turkmenistan 1-0.

Safety concerns have prevented foreign teams from visiting Afghanistan, and security was tight for Tuesday’s match, played in front of a sellout crowd of 6,000, including a number of female spectators.

Afghanistan is ranked at 139th in the world by FIFA and Pakistan even lower on the list at 167th. The difference was evident on the field where the host team dominated the game from the start. The Afghan defense did not allow a goal and regularly mounted attacks toward the Pakistani net.

Speaking afterward, officials on both sides said that despite prevailing political tensions, the soccer match was a strong indication of improving cultural and sporting ties.

Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan, Mohammad Umer Daudzai said the two countries need to further enhance these ties, saying they also will help strengthen anti-militancy efforts on both sides of the border.

“Our cricket team is born [in refugee camps] in Pakistan and trained and coached mostly by Pakistani team. They are now an international team and maybe soon they will [also] defeat Pakistan," said Daudzai. "These are all civilized interactions. And the uncivilized interaction is those [militant] sanctuaries, those suicide vests, those bombs and explosives. We have to get rid of that. We have to replace the uncivilized interaction with civilized interaction.

Bilateral relations have deteriorated in recent years with both Pakistan and Afghanistan trading allegations of harboring insurgents in each other’s territory. Afghan leaders blame Pakistani intelligence agencies for fueling the Taliban insurgency in their country, a charge Islamabad denies.

President of Pakistan Football Federation Faisal Saleh Hayat said that along with his Afghan counterparts, more matches are being planned in the future. He praised the large number of Afghans who showed up to watch Tuesday’s match.

Afghan football fans watch a friendly match between Afghanistan and Pakistan in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug., 20, 2013.
Afghan football fans watch a friendly match between Afghanistan and Pakistan in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug., 20, 2013.
He told VOA the Friendship Match will "hopefully be a healer of many wounds" between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“We hope that the massive participation of the Afghan people will help in improving the people-to-people contact between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and at the same time help to alleviate those apprehensions and unfounded fears in certain Afghan circles whereby Pakistan is always accused of several things which Pakistan has never really stood for,” said Hayat.

The football match came as Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, is expected to pay an official visit to Pakistan later this month, and officials in both nations hope his discussions with leaders in Islamabad will help reduce political tensions.