Last night some 5,000 fans convened at Kathmandu’s Dasharath Stadium to watch a historically significant encounter between Afghanistan and India: the final match of the South Asian Football Federation Championship. To the surprise of the crowd, by halftime Afghanistan was already ahead.
In the second half, Sanjar Ahmadi took the ball across the goal line again to give Afghanistan its first victory in international football, shocking the Indians who have won the event six times. It would seem that the tables have started to turn for Afghanistan’s football team, which was defeated 4-0 by India in the 2011 final. Today Afghanistan is ranked 139th in the world, while India is 145th. The South Asian Football Federation Championship takes place every two years, with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, and Nepal also participating.
“You can't imagine how big this moment is for our country, our fans, our team and me,” said Afghan coach Yousef Kargar. “We have proved that we belong in the world of football. Our team has improved a lot over the last few years and I am sure we will get better in the years to come.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The victory was cause for celebration in Kabul where fans flocked to restaurants and cafes to watch the match. When the game came to a close, celebratory gunfire could be heard throughout the city for about an hour, as car horns resounded and citizens held national flags.
This is a significant milestone for the nation, which has endured decades of war and insurrection. Afghanistan had a strong football fan base from the 1950s to the 1970s, which was stamped out by the Soviet Union and all but run underground by the Taliban. As recently as 1996-2001, the Taliban were using the nation’s football stadiums for public executions and forced amputations, the BBC notes.
“I am extremely happy, and I am very proud,” said Waheedullah, who goes by one name as many do in Afghanistan. “How I can explain my feelings? My friends and I were just praying, praying to be champions. It's one of the happiest days of my life.”
A “seemingly choked-up” Afghan President Hamid Karzai even posted a multilingual message on YouTube: “The youth of Afghanistan showed that our nation, our people have the ability to make progress and succeed.”