Thousands of fans — including the president — on Thursday gathered to cheer Afghanistan’s victorious national football team as they returned home after winning the war-wracked country’s first international football trophy.
The team stunned six-time champions India 2-0 Wednesday night to win the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) title in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu. The victory was a rare moment of joy in Afghanistan, where US-led international forces and government troops have been fighting a 12-year war against a Taliban insurgency.
President Hamid Karzai heralded the team’s “historic victory” as he welcomed each player individually at Kabul international airport, where fans waved flags and blew horns.
Thousands more gathered at the national football stadium — once a venue for Taliban executions — shouting “Zindabad Afghanistan” (“Long Live Afghanistan”).
As the team lifted the trophy the stadium erupted with cheers and whistles. Outside on the streets groups of men waved national flags, and danced.
Such celebrations were unheard of under the Taliban, which banned television, music and most sport and the victory provided a rare moment of unity in the ethnically divided nation.
Haroon Naeemi, 20, an ironsmith, had drawn the Afghan flag on his chest and said he hoped the world would now realise his country was not only about wars.
“This is a big day for all of us, and we are excited. I have never been this happy before,” he said.
Fans had packed restaurants, kebab shops and teahouses Wednesday to cheer on the Afghan team, ranked 139th in the world, whose victory against the 145th-ranked Indians avenged a humiliating 4-0 defeat in the final two years ago. On the final whistle, there was the sound of celebratory gunfire, with the partying carrying on through the night and into Thursday.
Afghanistan remains a strictly conservative society and most of those taking part in the jubilation were men, although some families in cars also joined in.
Karzai, who will be hoping the team’s success can spur the nation, sent the players a congratulatory message overnight saying that “our youths proved that we have the ability to make progress and win”.
He was also at the airport, joined by a number of senior government officials and members of parliament after the “historic victory”, the president’s office said in a statement.
“The president received and congratulated every member of the team on their arrival and wished them continued success,” the statement said.