KABUL (AFP) – Football fans in Afghanistan on Tuesday eagerly awaited the country's first home international in ten years, with their team set to take on neighbouring arch-rivals Pakistan in Kabul.
The "friendship match" at the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) stadium has ignited fierce patriotic fervour on both sides of the border and is likely to attract huge television audiences.
Long lines of fans queued for last-minute tickets at the 6,000-seater ground, which looked set for a sell-out crowd keen to witness a rare sporting highlight in a country beset for decades by war, poverty and Islamist extremism.
Afghanistan, ranked 139th in the world, last played at home in 2003 in a clash against Turkmenistan and have not played Pakistan, ranked 167th, in Kabul since 1977.
Local fans will be desperate for a morale-boosting home victory in the friendly, but players and coaches on both sides emphasised that the game was a chance to demonstrate a common love of sport.
"The main goal of this game is to build good relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Afghan coach Yousuf Kargar told reporters. "Winning or losing is not important for us."
Kargar dismissed fears that the game could be targeted by militants, saying "the security is what the government will take care of. We will focus on hospitality".
But he admitted his squad, eight of whom are based abroad, face a tough test when the match kicks off at 4:00 pm (1130 GMT).
"Ours is a very young team, and we never had the facilities that other neighbouring countries' teams have had. We have very little experience in football compared to the Pakistani team."
Pakistan captain Samar Ishaq said he was honoured to be part of the historic match and that his team was improving.
"We will feel the shortage of our foreign-based players, but we have put a lot of effort in over the past two years to make a good team.
"I'm feeling great to be in Afghanistan for the first time, and am very pleased."
Tickets cost between 100 and 300 Afghanis ($2 and $5) for the game, which will be played on an artificial pitch funded by the FIFA world body.
Political ties are badly strained between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which blame each other for violence plaguing both countries, with many in Afghanistan convinced that Pakistan pulls the strings behind the 12-year Taliban insurgency.
"I am sure Afghanistan will win, and hope this victory will be a response to Pakistan's interference in Afghanistan," said Mohammad Ali, 20, as he picked up tickets. "We need to win."
Football was not banned under the Taliban but the old Ghazi stadium in Kabul was a notorious venue for executions, stonings and mutilations.
Tuesday's game -- at the separate AFF ground in the city -- will be followed on Thursday by the start of the second season of the eight-team Afghan Premier League.