KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans welcomed home their national soccer team with exuberance and joy, a day after the squad won the war-weary country its first international championship in the sport.
President Hamid Karzai greeted the team Thursday at the Kabul airport, hugging the players and posing with them and their gleaming trophy for the cameras. The athletes then headed to Ghazi Stadium, where they were met by thousands of rambunctious fans who screamed in happiness and jostled – at times dangerously – to get close to their heroes.
Afghanistan beat India 2-0 in the South Asian Football Federation Championship on Wednesday. The win brought rare unity to this ethnically divided nation, where the former Taliban government once used sports stadiums to stage executions and where bombings are still part of daily life. The reaction indicated that Afghan society had healed in some ways since the U.S. ousted the Islamist movement in 2001.
For hours after the win, Afghans danced in the streets, honked car horns and fired guns in celebration. Some painted their bodies the green, black and red colors of the national flag. On Thursday morning, many greeted one another with "Congratulations!" while shouts of "Long live Afghanistan!" were still echoing across the capital by the evening.
Afghan television networks devoted heavy airtime to the players' return, interspersed with performances of patriotic songs.
"I am proud of the Afghan team – they made the greatest victory in the Afghan history, and I am proud to be Afghan," said Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan parliamentarian and one of the relatively few women in this strict Muslim nation who went out in public to celebrate.
The celebrations stretched well beyond Kabul. Even in Kandahar, a deeply conservative city in the Taliban-riddled south, Afghans of all ages hit the streets in pride, according to photos posted by the government there. The revelers piled into cars, waving national flags as they drove through streets crowded with fellow fans.
Javid Faisal, the spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor, tweeted in what might have been only half-jest: "I will not post any casualty reports for 24 hours as I am celebrating the championship of Afghanistan."
A spokesman for the Taliban, who are engaged in an insurgency to topple the U.S.-backed government, did not answer his phone on Wednesday or Thursday.
Afghans began playing soccer about 90 years ago, and the country's national federation was founded in 1922. Afghanistan joined FIFA in 1948. The country also was a founding member of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954.
From the 1950s through the '70s, soccer gained a strong following in Afghanistan, but it nearly disappeared during the Soviet occupation from 1979-89 and the civil war that followed from 1992-96.
When the Taliban ruled from 1996-2001, they severely restricted sports, and public outpourings of joy like this week's would have been unimaginable. But after the American-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power, soccer and other sports here were reborn, offering new opportunities for national pride.
Still, Afghans have struggled on many levels as fighting has continued between foreign and Afghan troops and the Taliban insurgents. Moments of national unity are especially welcome amid growing uncertainty over what will happen to the country after U.S.-led troops finish their withdrawal next year.
During Taliban rule, Afghans were forbidden from watching television, as the militants deemed it an unnecessary diversion from religion. On Thursday, Afghan television networks broadcast the return of the soccer team live.