KABUL - Afghanistan's victorious football team met President Hamid Karzai at his palace Wednesday to receive official congratulations for their 3-0 defeat of neighbouring Pakistan. Karzai praised the players for their slick dispatch of the visitors, which triggered celebrations across a war-torn country starved of international sporting action.
Tuesday's game was Afghanistan's first home international since they played Turkmenistan in 2003. The Pakistan team also attended the reception the day after the match, which was watched by a noisy 6,000-strong sell-out crowd in the Afghan capital. The two countries often have a fraught relationship, but Karzai said the fixture had been a symbol of strong cross-border ties.
"He told the Afghan and Pakistani teams that their match improved closeness between them, and he asked them to strengthen this closeness," a palace statement said. "The president expressed hope that extremism and killing is kept away from Afghanistan and Pakistan and that both countries live in prosperity."
Political relations have been badly strained for years between the two countries. They blame each other for bloody violence plaguing both nations. Many Afghans are convinced that Pakistan pulls the strings behind the 12-year insurgency that has raged since the Taliban hardline regime was ousted from Kabul in 2001. Pakistan Football Federation secretary Ahmed Yar Lodhi hailed the match, the first between the two sides in Kabul since 1977. "Despite the one-sided loss I think Pakistan have initiated a football diplomacy," Lodhi told AFP. "Win or loss are part and parcel of the game, but I think the goodwill this match has generated will go a long way."
A return fixture had been planned for December, but Lodhi said it was now likely to be postponed to March or April. "If the government and businessmen support and invest in Afghan players, we will beat the football teams of other big countries," goal scorer Mustafa Maroofi told the Tolo TV channel. Karzai is due to visit Islamabad next week for his first trip to Pakistan since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected. Possible peace talks with the Taliban are likely to be on the agenda.