Afghanistan wins 1st international football title

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Afghanistan won its first international trophy in football on Wednesday, beating India 2-0 in the South Asian Football Federation Championship.

The Afghans, who were a founding member of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954, have a long football history but only recently re-emerged on the world scene after decades of war and insurgency. When the Taliban ruled from 1996-2001, they severely restricted sports and football stadiums were used to stage executions of those who ran afoul of the Islamist movement's harsh laws.

Afghanistan has never played at the World Cup, or even at the Asian Cup. But the country has been getting better in recent years, rising up the FIFA rankings to No. 139 on the latest list.

On Wednesday, Mustafa Azadzoi put Afghanistan ahead early in the first half at Dashrath Stadium, and Sanjar Ahmadi doubled the lead in the second.

When it was over, the Afghan players walked around the field with Afghan flags draped on their shoulders. They then held hands and started to dance in a circle in celebration.

“I'm proud of my whole country. I congratulate my dear countrymen,” Afghanistan goalkeeper Mansur Faqiryar said.

The win over India avenged the team's loss in the SAFF Championship final two years ago. India beat the Afghans 4-0 in the 2011 championship match.

In Kabul, some Afghans gathered in Mecca Market, a store selling a variety of items, to watch the game on TV. Shortly after it ended, celebratory gunfire was heard around the capital.

“I am extremely happy, and I am very proud,” said Waheedullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name. “How I can explain my feelings? From the beginning till now my eyes were glued to the TV. My friends and I were just praying, praying to be champions. It's one of the happiest days of my life.”

Salahuddin, a police officer holding a Kalashnikov, celebrated the historic victory with several other officers.

“Congratulations! Congratulations!” Salahuddin repeated to his colleagues.

Afghans began playing football about 90 years ago, and the country's national federation was founded in 1922. Afghanistan joined FIFA in 1948.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, football gained a strong following in the country, but it nearly died out during the 10-year Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and the civil war that followed from 1992 to 1996.

After the hardline Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, sports in Afghanistan was reborn, with both cricket and football on the rise in international competitions.

The football team's success has been a point of unity in a country riven by ethnic divisions, with Afghans of all backgrounds praying for victory.