KABUL — The lights beamed on inside the Afghan Football Federation soccer stadium and 5,000 people, drawn to a spectacle unheard of for nearly four decades, came out to see.
Security in Afghanistan’s capital is tenuous, proved earlier in the week by several attempted suicide bomb attacks around the city while, elsewhere in the country, dozens of Afghan police and soldiers had been killed by Taliban fighters in one of the year’s deadliest spates of violence.
But, on this night, another battle was taking place between the De Maiwand Atalan soccer club from the Kandahar province and the defending champion De Spin Ghar Bazan team from Nangahar province for a shot at this year’s title in the Afghan Premiere League .
This was the first evening spectator event held in the country since the 1979 Soviet Union invasion.
Mostly beside the point was that the “Maiwand Champions” cruised to a 2-0 victory over Nangahar’s “Eagles of the White Mountain” in the semifinal match, which was also broadcast across the country on television and radio.
Instead, the men and women who crowded into the outdoor soccer stadium — tooting horns and cheering loudly at each shot on goal — were out to win back something far more valuable: a sense of public joy that has long eluded the nation locked for decades in a perpetual state of tyranny and war.
“It’s a very different feeling,” said Sayed Omar Anmadi, 23, who brought his brother Alyus, 12, to watch their favorite team from Kandahar’s Maiwand district play live, while dance music thumped over loudspeakers beneath the bright stadium lights.
“We don’t usually go out at night because of the security situation,” Anmadi said. “This offers a fresh kind of hope.”
The event, several years in the making, is part of a larger campaign to reintroduce a sense of normalcy into Afghan culture led by the Dubai-based Moby Media Group, which, with the Roshan telecommunications company, created the Afghan Premiere League in 2012.
With some U.S. State Department backing, the effort also includes a popular Afghan “Sesame Street” children’s program on Moby’s TOLO TV channel and a music production house for budding artists in Kabul.
But a fun night inside a Kabul soccer stadium carries extra symbolism for millions of Afghans.
Many remember the gruesome public executions held inside Kabul’s older Ghazi Stadium — about a half-mile away from the Afghan Federation Football stadium — during the Taliban regime in the late 1990s.
Abdul Hameed Mubarez, a local historian, said those days epitomized the fear of Taliban reprisals that still permeates Afghan society, keeping many home at night and away from large crowds vulnerable to suicide bomb attacks.
Before the Soviet invasion, night events in Kabul were routine, said Mubarez, who was deputy minister of culture under former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shar.
Crowds gathered inside Ghazi Stadium to watch the Afghan national soccer team compete against Iran or Pakistan. During Eid or Independence Day festivals held in August, live music filled the air as families traveling to Kabul from nearby provinces celebrated with elaborate picnics, often sleeping overnight in outdoor camps.
Now, with the Taliban insurgency raging for 16 years after decades of conflict before, many Afghans are weary of their limited lives and yearn for that same sense of freedom, Mubarez, 83, said.
“People have decided that they will go on with their lives,” he said. “They will enjoy it as long as they’re alive, because nowadays whenever we go out from our homes, we are not sure if we’ll come back alive or not.”
As the sun fell over the mostly commercial section of Kabul where the Afghan Football Federation stadium is located, the stadium lights — brought in from China and installed this month — lit up the night in an otherwise pitch-dark section of the capital.
Fans made their way past a perimeter of security checkpoints, with Afghan national police inspecting bags and frisking everyone who walked through.
In September, three people were killed in a suicide bomb attack outside an afternoon cricket tournament held nearby, so the police — aware of the high stakes surrounding this event — were on high alert. Several hundred officers manned posts or conducted surveillance, a federal Interior ministry spokesman said.
Mohammad Anit Watandost, an off-duty Kabul police office officer, passed through security with his son Irfan, 5. Watandost, 32, wore his police officer’s uniform. His adoring son wore a mock camouflage military uniform and sported a plastic toy AK-47 rifle.
Watandost said he came dressed in uniform to show pride in his role in fighting against a sense of insecurity in his native city that he views as a cancer in Afghanistan.
“I’ve gone through so many factional battles,” said Watandost, citing the Afghan mujahideen uprising against the Soviets during the 1980s that marked his early childhood, followed by civil war, the Taliban regime and today’s ongoing insurgency.
“We all want peace and the same kind of situation that we are in here,” Watandost said, gesturing to the crowded stadium of cheering fans. “I played football in my youth and I want my children to play football and watch football. This is what I want.”
With that, he turned his attention to the soccer pitch and, clutching his son, cheered a Maiwand Atalan goal.
On another play, the ball soared high over the players on the field, eliciting a roar from the crowd.
In one set of stands, fans from the conflict-ridden Nangahar province tooted their horns, including the veiled women who were seated in a section apart from the men.
On the other side, more noise came from the fans of the team from Kandahar, a province with portions under Taliban control.
Maiwand Habibi, 18, rooted for the Kandahar team, while his friend Mustafa Sultanzoy, 20, backed Nangahar.
Both are from Kabul and are too young to know much of the history behind either province, other than the constant reports of violence that hit their social media feeds.
But, after spending most of their youth indoors and socializing as young men at small gatherings inside hotels or friends’ homes, they said it felt good to be outside on what was a mild autumn night.
“There is a lot of security around here, which gives us confidence,” said Habibi, who works as a waiter inside a city cafe. Referring to the Islamic belief in fate, he added: “On the other hand, if anything happens to us, it is already written in the book.”
The following day, another semifinal night match took place without incident before an even larger crowd of 8,000 fans, setting up a final this Friday between the Maiwand team and the victorious “Falcons of Asmayee” from Kabul.
While the crowd’s cheers echoed into the night, a suicide bomber attacked a Shiite mosque nine miles away, killing 39 people.
Sharif Walid contributed to this story.