Afghan Soccer Team's Win Fuels National Pride

Afghanistan's national soccer team has achieved what no other institution has managed to do recently: unify the country. The team won a tough South Asian tournament last week, and Afghans across the country took to the streets to fire their guns and celebrate. Renee Montagne talks to Ahmad Arash Hatifie, who plays midfield for Afghanistan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Soccer was banned in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Today it's fueling a week-long party. Afghans are over the moon since their national team won the South Asian Football Federation championship last week. It was a stunning victory over India, two to nothing, especially for a team of unpaid players who slept in airports on the way to tournaments because they could not afford hotel rooms.

Ahmad Arash Hatifie plays midfield for Afghanistan. He happened to grow up in the San Francisco Bay area, but we reached him by phone in Kabul. Well, welcome to the program. Congratulations to you and the team. Is the country still celebrating?

AHMAD ARASH HATIFIE: The state of Kabul was in utter chaos. It's died down just a bit, but everywhere we go we're seen, we're known. I don't think I've ever taken this many pictures with random people in my entire life. But this place has gone mad in happiness.

MONTAGNE: Well, not to dwell too much on those first days and that, but what were the couple of things that you would remember over this last week?

HATIFIE: Let me paint a picture that - for the audience here. We landed earlier in the morning. As soon as we got off the plane, we were greeted by the president, President Hamid Karzai. And we were then put in land cruisers that are bulletproof. We literally, from the moment we left the airport, we were just bombarded by fans. There were 30 people - it's hard to believe, but there was 30 people on top of the land cruiser.

With the bulletproof cars there's two layers of glass and on some of the cars the normal sheet of glass was shattered completely. It was just nuts. Nuts in a good way. We were seeing people crying, people tapping the windows just to see our faces.

MONTAGNE: You know, we can imagine maybe a little. Years of conflict. There is a lot of poverty in the country, a lot of uncertainty. But why do you think this win was of intergalactic proportions, so, so exciting for Afghans?

HATIFIE: Well, I've met with - through this experience we've been very blessed and lucky to meet with some very, very important people and they've up front mentioned that in their two decade's worth of experience, some more, some less, they've tried their best to unify the country, and within a matter of one night we were able to unify everybody.

Uzbeks, Tajiks, Handaris(ph), Pashtuns, you name it, we're purely(ph) happy for our success.

MONTAGNE: Well, I gather even down in Kandahar, rather well-known here as the birthplace, if you will, of the Taliban movement, even in Kandahar people poured out into the streets.

HATIFIE: Absolutely. We've actually been - there's been word that we're gonna be visiting Kandahar and they're eager to see the team themselves face to face, and it would be an honor to visit Kandahar.

MONTAGNE: Well, just the last question. Afghanistan has not, in fact, qualified for next year's World Cup, but what is next for the team?

HATIFIE: The next step, about six months ago, we actually qualified to the next round of Challenge Cup, which is a huge, huge Asian tournament. Also, we had a friendly match against Pakistan. They came to Kabul for the first time in many, many, many years and we were successful to beat them three to zero. We actually going to have an away match there on Pakistani soil, so that's the next step for Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Ahmad Arash Hatifie plays midfield for Afghanistan's champion national soccer team. He spoke to us from Kabul. Thank you very much.

HATIFIE: Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it and wish nothing but the best for everybody in the States.

MONTAGNE: And also good luck to you.

HATIFIE: Thank you so much.

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