For Afghanistan's national soccer team, 2013 was a groundbreaking year. Not only did the team play its first international match for a decade, but it won its first ever international trophy in the sport.
And to cap off this remarkable year, soccer's world governing body, FIFA, awarded the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) the FIFA Fair Play Award for 2013, a first for the country in the sport.
FIFA, which presented the award at the Ballon d’Or ceremony in Zurich on January 13, lauded Afghanistan’s achievement in developing soccer against great odds.
WATCH: Afghanistan's Soccer Federation Wins FIFA's Fair Play Award
The international accolade has been warmly received in Afghanistan, where fans, athletes, and officials have heaped praise on the national soccer team for promoting peace and unity in the country.
Afghanistan’s national coach, Homayoon Kargar, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on January 14 that winning FIFA’s Fair Play Award was a "landmark achievement."
"Despite years and years of war, Afghanistan has managed to win an award at a very important ceremony," he said. "Even countries who have been members of FIFA for years haven't managed to achieve what we have.”
Kargar said soccer had also succeeded in bringing patriotic pride and unity to Afghanistan -- something not often seen in a country plagued by deep-seated political, ethnic, and religious divisions. "In a very short period of time, Afghan soccer has put youths and the public into a very positive path. Afghan soccer has promoted peace, stability, and national unity," he said.
'Inspiring Social Change'
Qudratullah, a Kabul resident, said he hoped the FIFA award was a sign of more success to come. "It’s very good news that we have received this award," he said. "The Afghan national team achieved great international success in 2013. God willing, we will be even better this year.”
FIFA Fair Play Committee member Tokyo Sexwale, who presented the award to the AFF, said the Afghan federation had shown a "great amount of dedication and hard work to develop football at grassroots level, to build infrastructure for the game so that it can grow, and to nurture a national league in the midst of years of violence and destruction."
"Afghanistan is inspiring social change and breaking down barriers every day," he said. "Against all odds, the winner of the 2013 FIFA Fair Play Award has upheld this spirit of courage and solidarity through the aftereffects of war, disorder, and conflict."
Sexwale added that Afghanistan had made great strides in making the game available to a wider audience throughout the country, most notably to women and families. More than 20 soccer clubs, including 16 in Kabul, now offer opportunities for girls and women to play soccer.
FIFA gives out the Fair Play Award to "persons or institutions for their fair play, an issue that has always been of crucial significance to world football's governing body."
Uzbekistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor, received FIFA’s Fair Play Award in 2012.
The FIFA award is the latest in a series of soccer milestones for Kabul.
Afghanistan, ranked 139th in the world, hosted its first international match in a decade when it played a friendly with neighbor and archrival Pakistan in August. Afghanistan won the match 3-0. Pakistan will welcome Afghanistan for the return match in Lahore in March.
In September, the national team created history when it beat title holders and tournament favorites India 2-0 to clinch the South Asian Football Federation championship. It was Afghanistan’s first-ever international trophy in the sport.
Afghanistan will hope to break more ground when it plays in the 2014 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup, which is being held in the Maldives in May. The winners will automatically qualify for the prestigious continental 2015 AFC Asian Cup.
Afghanistan, which has been a FIFA member since 1948, has a long soccer history, but the sport suffered because of decades of war.
During the Taliban's rule soccer was not banned, but the sport was neglected and stadiums were routinely used as sites for public executions.
Since the end of Taliban rule, soccer and other sports have gained in popularity.
Written by Frud Bezhan based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan