KABUL: When the rattling sound of Kalashnikov assault rifles resonates in the streets of Kabul, it's more often than not because of an attack by Taliban insurgents. But that changed, for once, on Wednesday, the shots being fired in celebration at Afghanistan's victory over India to win the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) title.
The smell of burning cordite enveloped the Afghan city after the national team's 2-0 win over the Indians in Kathmandu thanks to goals from Mustafa Azadzoy and Sandjar Ahmadi.
The victory will no doubt reinforce the popularity of the national team that already grabbed the right headlines with a 3-0 win in a friendly against Pakistan, the neighbouring state with which Afghanistan shares stormy political relations.
As the win over India played out, Afghans did not wait for the referee's final whistle for some welcome relief, packing cafes, restaurants and businesses throughout Kabul that showed the game on television.
In a tearoom in the old city, some 20 people crammed around a television set mounted on a wall.
Situated on the first floor of a rickety house, the tearoom had small platforms covered in red carpet on which the clientele stretched out to drink tea, smoke cigarettes or hashish. “I came here to visit my brother and also to watch football,” said 30-year-old civil servant Gholam Rasol Lala.
“I love to watch football, especially the English championship. It's good for us, it makes us forget the war and the attacks that we can see every day in our country.”
When Azadzoy opened the scoring after a badly attempted clearance by Indian goalkeeper Subrata Paul, it was met by deafening cheers and applause.
“They're playing very well,” beamed tearoom regular Gul Raman.
A little further down the street was a restaurant also showing the game. The owner was left rubbing his hands in delight at the sight of his packed establishment, grilled kebabs of meat accompanied by long, spiced chips selling like hot cakes.
With no places left to sit inside, dozens of locals massed in front of the restaurant in an ambitious bid to spy the small-screened television set up at the far end of the establishment.
Abdel Wahed, 21, avoided any disruption to his viewing entertainment by simply going to a shop selling televisions.
The final was broadcast on a big screen still sporting its plastic protective wrapping. “If we win, there will be a big celebration,” the 21-year-old Barcelona fan said.
“We went through three decades of war so it is good to think about something else from time to time.” When Sandjar Ahmadi chipped 'keeper Paul for Afganistan's second in the 62nd minute of a fast-paced final, and the team then held on for the win, the relief was palpable.
“We won, this is so exciting!” cried Abdul Salam. “They struggled to be there, to ensure that the name of Afghanistan will be known for something other than war and attacks.”
Out in the street, car horns blazed, guns rattled and groups of fans came together waving the Afghan flag.
Scenes familiar in the West – perhaps apart from the guns – but incredibly rare in a country still battling the Taliban, who have been leading a bloody insurgency since their regime was toppled in late 2001.
The national team players will return as heroes to Afghanistan. And they will doubtless be better off after the government promised each player an apartment should they win – not bad when you earn nine dollars a day as a professional footballer in the country ranked 139th in the world.