The whistle blew and 300 people cheered for the first time in a generation. Ten men in Afghan Army fatigues advanced toward their opposite numbers, local students clad in matching striped jerseys. Plumes of dust rose from the freshly raked pitch while people clambered onto rooftops, straining for a better view. Popular music boomed from the loudspeakers, creating a carnival atmosphere.  Football had come to Musa Qal’eh.

3 weeks earlier, our planning had started with modest intentions; to host a public event to build closer ties between the Afghan security forces and the local community. It hadn’t dawned on us that such an occasion would be a first for many years. ‘We would never have been allowed to do this under the Taliban.’ The organiser (and Director of Education) Ghulam Ali later told us. ‘We would have been punished. Very badly.’

The scale of organisation required also caught us unawares. The teams needed jerseys, a referee to be found, goalposts constructed, security to be planned, trophies purchased, music selected, the district governor’s blessing. This was no ordinary weekend knockabout.

And despite our myriad fears, it worked. The crowd swelled and shouted. The teams put on a fine display (to our relief it was a draw). There were no attacks, riots or explosions. And it proved that what we call ‘stabilisation’ doesn’t just have to be about building bridges or planning elections.

For outsiders today may have seemed a humble game of football, but for the people of Musa Qal’eh it was small step toward a brighter future.