Football fever in Kabul ahead of Afghan-Pakistan friendly

Afghanistan, ranked 139th in the football world, last played at home in 2003 in a clash against Turkmenistan and have not played Pakistan, ranked 167th, in Kabul since 1977.

Updated: August 20, 2013 15:26 IST
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Kabul: Afghanistan's football fans on Tuesday were eagerly awaiting their first home international for 10 years, preparing to take on arch-rivals Pakistan in a match that has ignited patriotic fervour.

Kabul residents have desperately sought last-minute tickets for the fixture, a rare sporting highlight in a country beset for decades by war, poverty and Islamist extremism.

The "friendship match" at the 6,000-seater Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) stadium is set to attract a sell-out crowd and draw a huge television audience, although interest in Pakistan is more muted.

Afghanistan, ranked 139th in the football world, last played at home in 2003 in a clash against Turkmenistan and have not played Pakistan, ranked 167th, in Kabul since 1977.

Political ties are badly strained between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which blame each other for violence plaguing both countries.

Many in Afghanistan are convinced that Pakistan pulls the strings behind the 12-year Taliban insurgency in their country.

Afghan supporters will be cheering for a morale-boosting home victory, but players and coaches emphasised that the game was a chance to demonstrate a shared love of sport.

"The main goal of this game is to build good relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Afghan coach Yousuf Kargar told reporters. "Winning or losing is not important for us."

Kargar dismissed fears that the event could be targeted by militants, saying that "the security is what the government will take care of. We will focus on hospitality".

But he admitted his squad, eight of whom are based abroad, face a tough test when the match kicks off at 4:00 pm (1130 GMT).

"Ours is a very young team, and we never had the facilities that other neighbouring countries' teams have had. We have very little experience in football compared to the Pakistani team."

Thousands of Pakistanis work in the Afghan capital, which has been hit by a series of militant attacks in recent years, but it is uncertain how many will attend the match.

Pakistan captain Samar Ishaq said he was honoured to be part of the historic occasion and his team was improving. Football is an emerging sport in Pakistan, where cricket and hockey dominate.

"We will feel the shortage of our foreign-based players, but we have put a lot of effort in over the past two years to make a good team," Ishaq said.

"I'm feeling great to be in Afghanistan for the first time, and am very pleased."

Tickets cost between 100 and 300 Afghanis ($2-5) for the game, which will be played on an artificial pitch funded by the FIFA world body.

"I am sure Afghanistan will win, and hope this victory will be a response to Pakistan's interference in Afghanistan," said Mohammad Ali, 20, as he picked up tickets. "We need to win."

Football was not banned under the Taliban 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 Thursday by the start of the second season of the eight-team Afghan Premier League.

A return match is scheduled in the Pakistani city of Lahore in December.

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