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War-weary Afghans revel in first international championship in soccer

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghans on Thursday welcomed home their national soccer team with exuberance and joy, a day after the squad won the war-weary country its first international championship in the sport.

President Hamid Karzai greeted the team at the airport, hugging each player and posing with them and their gleaming trophy for the cameras. The athletes then headed to Ghazi Stadium, where they were met by thousands of rambunctious fans who screamed in happiness.

Afghanistan beat India 2-0 in the South Asian Football Federation Championship on Wednesday. The win brought rare unity to this ethnically divided nation, where the former Taliban government once used sports stadiums to stage executions and where bombings are part of daily life.

For hours after the win, Afghans danced in the streets, honked car horns and fired guns in celebration. On Thursday morning, many greeted one another with "Congratulations!" while shouts of "Long live Afghanistan!" were still echoing across the Afghan capital, Kabul, by the afternoon.

"I am proud of the Afghan team - they made the greatest victory in the Afghan history, and I am proud to be Afghan," said Shukria Barakzai, an Afghan parliamentarian and one of the relatively few women in this strict Muslim nation who went out in public to celebrate.

Even in Kandahar, a deeply conservative city in the Taliban-riddled south, Afghans hit the streets in pride, according to photos posted by the government there. The revelers piled into cars, waving national flags as they drove through the streets.

Javid Faisal, the spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor, tweeted in what might have been only a half-jest: "I will not post any casualty reports for 24 hours as I am celebrating the Championship of Afghanistan."

Afghans began playing soccer about 90 years ago, and the country's national federation was founded in 1922. Afghanistan joined FIFA in 1948. The country also was a founding member of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954.

From the 1950s through the `70s, soccer gained a strong following in Afghanistan, but it nearly disappeared during the 10-year Soviet occupation from 1979-89 and the civil war that followed from 1992-96.

When the Taliban ruled from 1996-2001, they severely restricted sports, and public outpourings of joy like this week's would have been unimaginable. But after the American-led invasion ousted the Islamist movement from power, soccer and other sports here were reborn.

Still, Afghans have struggled on many levels as the Taliban have pursued a bloody insurgency. Moments of national unity are especially welcome amid growing uncertainty over what will happen to the country after U.S.-led troops finish their withdrawal next year.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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