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Afghanistan-Pakistan soccer match bright point in tumultuous history

Afghan soccer fans watch a friendly match between Afghanistan and Pakistan in Kabul August 20, 2013. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani
Afghan soccer fans watch a friendly match between Afghanistan and Pakistan in Kabul August 20, 2013. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Jessica Donati

KABUL (Reuters) - With the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan often marked by diplomatic fouls and offsides, it took a soccer match in Kabul to bring the neighbors together on Tuesday.

Billed as an indication of the country's gradual return to normality after decades of war and violence, the 6,000-seater stadium was sold out and the jubilant crowd cheered at every pass, erupting into a frenzy when game ended 3-0 to Afghanistan.

The FIFA-sanctioned friendly was played at the Afghan Football Federation's stadium, where on Thursday the second season of the Afghan Premier League will kick off.

The last time the Pakistani national team played in Afghanistan was in 1977. Given the background of strained, sometimes violent, relations, the game was heavy with diplomatic significance, although that seemed to matter little to the Afghan crowd.

"I hope to come to many more international games here," said Haroon Shirzad, a 21-year-old student who was shirtless and painted from the waist to his hairline in the colors of the Afghan flag.

Youths such as Shirzad sat alongside men with long, grey beards in the buoyed up crowd. There did not appear to be any women in the stands outside the VIP and media areas.

And though the mood was overwhelmingly positive and convivial, the match was a brief bright moment in an otherwise troubled and often bloody relationship.

As NATO-led forces work towards ending their combat role in the war, there are concerns that Pakistan, despite being a U.S. ally, is again stepping up its support of the Taliban to try to counter the influence of arch-rival India, which it believes supports anti-Pakistan elements in the country.

STRAINED RELATIONSHIP

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a large and porous border riddled with insurgents and smuggling activity, and have a history of strained relations that sometimes led to clashes.

Not only do they not see eye to eye on their border - there have been several cross-border shelling incidents in recent years - Pakistan's role in the 12-year war in Afghanistan has been ambiguous.

Afghanistan has often accused Pakistan of making public pronouncements about wanting to help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but privately allowing elements of its intelligence community to support the insurgency

The lines of riot police at the entrances to the stadium were nervous but orderly; they had been preparing for this day for a week, according to one of them.

"Security has to be very tight because it is such an important game," he said.

And while the game was celebrated as a chance to promote Afghanistan's future, the ghosts of the past were never far away.

"If this were football match in Kabul during Taliban rule, halftime would have meant Namaz (prayers) or (you would receive) public punishment," tweeted one Afghan.

Other reminders were also present. The match was played less than a kilometer away from Ghazi Stadium, which today is used by the national football team to train.

During the brief rule of the Taliban, however, it was used for public executions and mutilations of people who had transgressed the Taliban's strict laws.

Once the match was finished the Afghan team ensured the Afghan crowd knew just how pleased they were to have beaten Pakistan - dancing in circles and waving large Afghan flags.

"I'm so proud that Afghanistan beat Pakistan; Pakistan has always looked down on us," Afghan head coach Mohammad Yousuf Kargar told local television.

A second game between the two nations is scheduled for December in the northeastern Pakistani city of Lahore.

(Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Alison Williams)

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