SAFF Cup win a balm for war-torn Afghans

Kabul, Sep 12 (IANS) The Afghan national football team received a heroic welcome from President Hamid Karzai and hundreds of fans at the Kabul airport Thursday following their big win over India in the final of the SAFF Cup football tournament in Kathmandu.

Afghanistan Wednesday won its first international title as they beat India 0-2 in the final in Kathmandu.

This victory delighted war-weary Afghans, reports Xinhua.

"Thanks for football, I can enjoy and celebrate a victory for the first time in my life," said 22-year-old Rohulla.

"It is a great win for Afghanistan. I am delighted by it. I had forgotten everything about the war and conflicts since last night when our football team won the match and defeated the Indians," Assibullah, 18, said in Kabul Ghazi Stadium where a welcoming ceremony was held.

Assibullah, who like many Afghans, goes only by one name, added that football was not only fun but could serve as a source to unit people.

Another ecstatic fan said the players bring peace to the country.

"These players can bring us peace. They can bring smile," said Helen Kohistani, a teenage girl.

"President Hamid Karzai was joined by a number of senior government officials and parliament members at the Kabul International Airport to welcome home the Afghan football team after a historic victory in the South Asian Football Federation's Championship (SAFF). The president received and congratulated every member of the team on their arrival and wished them continued success," said a statement posted on the presidential palace website.

The team later went to the Kabul Ghazi Stadium, where thousands of football fans were waiting.

The happy Afghans chanted "Thank you for win," "Victory is yours," and "Afghanistan, Afghanistan" upon the team's arrival.

In return, the team showcased the SAFF Cup.

Several Afghan officials including parliamentarians, ministers, politicians and military officials attended the welcoming ceremony amid tight security.

The championship carried a cash prize of $50,000 for the winner and $25,000 for the runner-up.

Eight teams, including India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bhutan, participated in the event.

Despite a raging insurgency, lack of funds and having no proper sport facilities, war-torn Afghanistan embarked on an extraordinary rise in sports particularly in football and cricket in recent years.

Since the collapse of the Taliban regime, Afghan athletes have started taking part in several sport events and started bringing medals and honors to the country.

Judoka Rohullah Nikpa became the first Afghan to win an Olympic medal -- bronze in the 2008 Beijing Games. He also won his second Olympic bronze last year in London.

The Afghan National Cricket team lifted the Asian Cricket Council T20 Cup after defeating Chinese Hong Kong in a final match also held in Nepal in December 2011.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had suspended the membership of Afghanistan in 1999 due to Taliban's brutal policies that included restrictions on the country's athletes. It lifted the suspension in 2002 after the collapse of the Taliban regime.

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