A sniper team peered down from one corner of the bleachers, another perched atop the roof of the VIP area, trucks with machineguns were parked at the stadium gates and hundreds of shield-toting riot police stood between the stands and the field.
Even the blimp floating nearby was NATO’s, not Goodyear’s, its job to warn of incoming missiles and mortar shells rather than to sell tires.
The trappings for Afghanistan’s first home match against its arch-frenemy Pakistan in more than 35 years were what you would expect for a high-profile soccer game in a city that is a frequent target for terrorists.
Adding to the game’s baggage were the facts that Afghans believe Pakistan controls those terrorists, Pakistanis blame Afghanistan for violence in their nation, and the two countries only months ago were shooting at each other in the latest of years of border skirmishes.
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In the end, though, it was a just a game, a faint whiff of normalcy in a city where not so long ago the Taliban used another soccer field for public executions.
For many in the sellout crowd of 6,000 wildly enthusiastic soccer fans, it was a particularly special break from the stress of living in such a place. And a chance to savor a dominating 3-0 victory over a longstanding rival, and to mark Kabul’s return to hosting international soccer matches for the first time in a decade.
Other than national pride, little was at stake in the match, which was the kind known in the soccer world as a friendly. The organizers played on that, dubbing it the “Friendship Match” and promoting the game as soccer diplomacy.
Many in the stands said that made sense, especially now that diplomatic tensions between the two countries seem to be easing a bit in the wake of the recent election of a new prime minister in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif. Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced recently that he planned an official visit to Pakistan late this month. The agenda is expected to include discussions about how the two countries can work together to fight terrorism in the region and to get the insurgents to the peace table.
“Look, the squabbling is just a blame game between the two countries,” said Muhamed Tamim, a 20-year-old university student from Logar province who follows the famed Spanish professional team Real Madrid. “We blame them, they blame us, but I really think this game can help improve the relations, and I hope that it will. And it’s just great to be able to come and see a game like this again."
Even the losing coach said he admired the enthusiasm of the crowd, and how smoothly the match went, at least off the field.
“I am really satisfied that I was part of this lovely event and part of this lovely crowd and Afghanistan people,” said Zavisa Milosavljeviae after the game.
There was an edge to the crowd’s enthusiasm, though, that went beyond a love for soccer. At halftime, a section of the bleachers began chanting “Long live Afghanistan! Death to the enemies of Afghanistan! Long live the Afghan National Army!”
One in the group carried a sign that said: “Pakistan should not taste the flavor of victory in Afghanistan.”
The game they saw was not exactly a clash between soccer titans. Afghanistan entered the match ranked 139th in the world, Pakistan 167th.
Both teams were sloppy in the early minutes, and Afghanistan was conservative, passing the ball around among its defensive players to an unusual degree.
But the home team found its offense and energy late in the first half, and after it scored its first goal it was able to control the rest of the game. Pakistan could muster almost nothing that resembled offense.
The quality of play wasn’t stellar, but there were few intentional fouls and there seemed to be no animosity between players, even after a couple of minor injuries.
And the level of play was just fine for the mass of spectators, with non-stop cheering from fans in a city that hadn’t been able to host an international match in more than 10 years.
They were nearly delirious when the Afghan team sealed its victory with a third goal, a rocketing shot off a rebound. The crowd roared so hard that fear showed on the faces of some of the riot police guarding the field, and a few tentatively lifted their shields.
But it wasn’t that kind of day in Kabul. The celebration was long and loud.