Afghans Prepare for First Soccer Match in Taliban's Stadium of Horrors

A Kabul soccer stadium that became famous after the Taliban began using it for public executions and amputations was being spiffed up Thursday for its first big game since the Islamic militia fell from power.

Workers were putting a fresh coat of paint on goal posts that were used not long ago as gallows. But on Friday, the stadium will hold 30,000 spectators who are coming to watch Kabul's top players face off against a team of peacekeepers. The game is already sold out, and Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai is expected to open the match.

"The fact that there is now a football game in a place where there were once executions is proof that the Taliban reign of terror is finally over," said Lt. Col. Dietmar Jeserich of the German peacekeeping force. "It's a good idea to have this game now and show people that these times are over."

The stadium fell into miserable shape under the Taliban, who discouraged sports and began holding executions and amputations there as well as sporting events.

Afghanistan was suspended from the International Olympic Committee in 1999 in part because the Taliban prohibited women from competing in sports. The Taliban, who discouraged sports, severed ties with FIFA, international soccer's governing body.

During the Taliban's rule, athletes were forced to wear beards and pants that reached down below their knees. They were also forbidden to train after 4 p.m., which was prayer time.

"Now we are free players," said Sharif, an Afghan defender who, like many Afghans, uses one name. "I am very happy and I will enjoy this a lot."

The game was organized by the British Ministry of Defense with the backing of the English Football Association and the Premier League. About half of the 3,200-member international force in Kabul is British.

Most of the players on the international side are British, but Italian, Danish, French, German, Dutch, Norwegian and Spanish peacekeepers will also participate.

"They do not speak English but football is a common language and we got along well," said Lawrie McMenemy, who once managed a team in Southampton, Britain, and is now coaching the Afghan team.

English soccer giants Manchester United and Liverpool have donated the match ball used in one of their Premier League matches. The ball will be signed by players from both teams, including stars David Beckham of Manchester United and Michael Owen of Liverpool.

The Taliban hosted public executions on Fridays at the stadium and also amputated the hands of criminals there, often displaying the severed limbs to the crowd. Last year, two suspected bombers were hanged from the goal posts.

At the stadium Thursday, workers were painting the goal posts and putting fresh boundary lines on a grass field that was mostly brown due to a severe drought.