The lights beamed on inside the Afghan Football Federation soccer stadium and 5,000 people, drawn to a spectacle unheard of for nearly four decades, came out to see.
Security in Afghanistan’s capital is tenuous, proved earlier in the week by several attempted suicide bomb attacks around the city while, elsewhere in the country, dozens of Afghan police and soldiers had been killed by Taliban fighters in one of the year’s deadliest spates of violence.
But, on Thursday night, another battle was taking place between the De Maiwand Atalan soccer club from the Kandahar province and the defending champion De Spin Ghar Bazan team from Nangahar province for a shot at this year’s title in the Afghan Premier League .
This was the first evening spectator event held in the country since the 1979 Soviet Union invasion.
Mostly beside the point was that the “Maiwand Champions” cruised to a 2-0 victory over Nangahar’s “Eagles of the White Mountain” in the semifinal match, which was also broadcast across the country on television and radio.
Instead, the men and women who crowded into the outdoor soccer stadium — tooting horns and cheering loudly at each shot on goal — were out to win back something far more valuable: a sense of public joy that has long eluded the nation locked for decades in a perpetual state of tyranny and war.
“It’s a very different feeling,” said Sayed Omar Anmadi, 23, who brought his brother Alyus, 12, to watch their favorite team from Kandahar’s Maiwand district play live, while dance music thumped over loudspeakers beneath the bright stadium lights.
“We don’t usually go out at night because of the security situation,” Anmadi said. “This offers a fresh kind of hope.”
The event, several years in the making, is part of a larger campaign to reintroduce a sense of normalcy into Afghan culture led by the Dubai-based Moby Media Group, which, with the Roshan telecommunications company, created the Afghan Premier League in 2012.
With some US State Department backing, the effort also includes a popular Afghan “Sesame Street” children’s program on Moby’s TOLO TV channel and a music production house for budding artists in Kabul.
But a fun night inside a Kabul soccer stadium carries extra symbolism for millions of Afghans.
Many remember the gruesome public executions held inside Kabul’s older Ghazi Stadium — about a half-mile away from the Afghan Federation Football stadium — during the Taliban regime in the late 1990s.
Abdul Hameed Mubarez, a local historian, said those days epitomized the fear of Taliban reprisals that still permeates Afghan society, keeping many home at night and away from large crowds vulnerable to suicide bomb attacks.
Before the Soviet invasion, night events in Kabul were routine, said Mubarez, who was deputy minister of culture under former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shar.
Crowds gathered inside Ghazi Stadium to watch the Afghan national soccer team compete against Iran or Pakistan. During Eid or Independence Day festivals held in August, live music filled the air as families traveling to Kabul from nearby provinces celebrated with elaborate picnics, often sleeping overnight in outdoor camps.
Now, with the Taliban insurgency raging for 16 years after decades of conflict before, many Afghans are weary of their limited lives and yearn for that same sense of freedom, Mubarez, 83, said.
“People have decided that they will go on with their lives,” he said. “They will enjoy it as long as they’re alive, because nowadays whenever we go out from our homes, we are not sure if we’ll come back alive or not.”
As the sun fell over the mostly commercial section of Kabul where the Afghan Football Federation stadium is located, the stadium lights — brought in from China and installed this month — lit up the night in an otherwise pitch-dark section of the capital.
Fans made their way past a perimeter of security checkpoints, with Afghan national police inspecting bags and frisking everyone who walked through.
The Washington Post