For Pakistan And Afghanistan, Soccer As Reconciliation

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Afghanistan and Pakistan are better known for their verbal fights and occasional border clashes, but for the first time since 1976, they battled on a soccer field in Kabul.

Some 6,000 rabid Afghan fans cheered on their team, clad in red uniforms. There were horns, flags, and face paint. It looked like any soccer game in the world, except for all the riot police, snipers, and Blackhawk helicopters passing overhead periodically.

Ahmad Mirwais, a 27-year-old tailor, was one of those lucky enough to score a ticket.

"It's good to hold such events," says Mirwais. "The two countries criticize each other all the time in the media. Let's leave that behind and create sincere relations by holding sports matches."

Relations have been on the downslide this year.

There have been deadly clashes along the disputed border. Afghanistan continues to accuse Pakistan of hindering peace talks with the Taliban. Some Pakistani officials say President Hamid Karzai is an unreliable partner in that process. And each country accuses the other of harboring anti-government militants.

Karzai's Term Winds Down

Karzai is making what could be his last trip to Pakistan as head of state. He's hoping to turn a new page in the two countries' fraught relations before he leaves office next year.

Despite the often bellicose rhetoric between the governments, the soccer game went off without incident and the teams shook hands afterward.

University student Fatima Muhammadi, one of the few Afghan women at the event, believes that's a good omen for Karzai's visit to Pakistan.

"His trip will have a good result," she says, "because this match has created good relations between the two countries."

That's exactly what the organizers and coaches were hoping for. But, tailor Ahmad Mirwais says the good will created by the game will only go so far.

"Karzai has already gone to Pakistan, but there's been no results," he says. "I doubt that this time there'll be any good result."

"For 12 years, President Karzai didn't achieve anything from Pakistan," says Shukria Barakzai, a member of parliament watching the match from the VIP section of the small stadium. She says the two countries have many shared interests, particularly defeating extremism.

"The non-military government of Pakistan, they try to be helpful," says Barakzai.

But, she and other Afghans argue it's the Pakistan military that controls policy toward Afghanistan. She says that like Karzai's previous 13 visits to Islamabad, this one might yield positive statements, but no action.

Hopes For A New Chapter

However, Janan Mosazai, the spokesman for Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry, says Karzai's visit can make a difference.

"We hope that [the] visit will herald a new chapter of honest, robust and result-oriented cooperation between our two countries," says Mosazai.

Omar Dawoudzai, Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan, told Afghanistan's Tolo News that the trip will jumpstart the peace process. He hopes Pakistan will release Taliban prisoners that Afghanistan believes will help the peace talks.

But, political analyst Davood Moradian says not so fast.

"Pakistan would not make any substantive deal with an outgoing president," he says.

Moradian says that Pakistan is going to wait to see who is elected to replace Karzai next spring. And, he says most Afghans are also tempering their expectations.

"On one hand they are hopeful that this visit will produce something here, but at the same time, they are experienced enough that they do not expect too much from Pakistan."

So, for now, the Afghan people have to settle for small steps, like the soccer game, and their team's 3-0 victory over Pakistan.

NPR's Sultan Faizy contributed to this story.

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