KABUL The feeling of optimism in the air was almost palpable as the inaugural Afghan Premier League reached its climax in Kabul on Friday just a stone's throw from where the Taliban carried out public executions.
Waving Afghan flags or wrapping them around their shoulders, around 4,000 fans crammed into a newly built stadium for the culmination of the ambitious three-week championship sponsored by local telecommunications operator Roshan.
"Football is helping these boys by providing a platform for youths to have something to turn to besides drug addiction or joining the insurgency," Afghan Football Federation (AFF) advisor Ali Askar Lali told Reuters.
Eleven years into the NATO-led war against Taliban insurgents, violence is intensifying across Afghanistan, where even some of the most peaceful areas are falling prey to militants.
As the finalists from the eight-team tournament took to the field, fear of the widespread violence engulfing the country was, understandably, still on many minds.
"We were worried throughout the whole tournament that something would happen, but... I don't think anyone could get away with trying to ruin this," Lali shouted above the din of screaming crowds.
The event culminated with Toofan Harirod, representing the western region, beating northwestern region's Simorgh Alborz 2-1 in a final held near the notorious Ghazi stadium, where the Taliban held public executions during their 1996-2001 reign.
All of Afghanistan's 34 provinces were represented in a tournament broadcast live on television and radio stations belonging to Moby Group, run by Austalian-educated Kabul tycoon Saad Mohseni.
PLAYING FOR PRIDE
As the late-2014 deadline looms for foreign troops to leave the country and all security responsibilities are handed over to Afghan forces, concerns are mounting that ethnic clashes and civil war could erupt.
After the dispirited Soviet exit in 1989 after a decade fighting mujahideen, the Afghan communist government collapsed, leading to infighting between warlords and a vicious civil war that reduced much of Kabul to rubble and paved the way for the Taliban's rise to power in 1996.
"I've played football all my life but never dreamed this would happen," Simorgh Alborz midfielder Kawoon Malikzada said. "Now I am playing for pride, not just for sport".
Afghan athletes are firm believers in the benefits sport can provide a country torn apart by decades of war, though they bemoan the lack of government support, including poorly maintained training facilities and little financial incentive.
Afghan Taekwondo Olympian Rohullah Nikpai, who brought home bronze medals in Beijing and London and has become a national hero, rushed to the field to congratulate the winning team, handing them a golden soccer shoe trophy.
In perhaps a more significant development earlier in the evening, two Kabul-based women's teams made up of national squad members played in front of the largest ever crowd for a women's match on Afghan soil.
In the past, Afghanistan's ultra-conservative society has forced the team to play mostly abroad to avoid threats that plague female athletes.
"The Taliban can't stop Afghans from progressing. Those girls are proof of this," AFF President and provincial governor of central Panshijr, Keramuddin Karim, told Reuters.
Sitting in the packed, women-only section of the stadium after completing her match, 19-year-old Hadisa Wali beamed with pride: "It's surreal to be able to play at home like this."
(Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by John O'Brien)