By Daniel Magnowski
KABUL (Reuters) - Its pitch, they said, was so bloodsoaked that grass would not grow. For years, the only spectacles on offer at the Ghazi Stadium in the Afghan capital were executions, stonings and mutilations by the Taliban, rulers of the country from 1996 to 2001.
On Thursday, thousands of young Afghan athletes wearing soccer strips, boxing and running warmup gear, and the belted white suits of martial artists, came to the stadium to celebrate its official re-opening.
This time, the grass has been ripped up and replaced with bright green artificial turf, part of a U.S.-funded stadium refurbishment.
"Of all the international projects implemented in Afghanistan, this is one of the most popular, it enjoys the support of all Afghans," said Lieutenant General Mohammad Zaher Aghbar, president of Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee, and a goalkeeper with the army's soccer team for five years.
"The place that once was used to execute people during the Taliban, and then football played on their blood, is now turned into a peaceful place," he said.
"Sport helps societies get together, it will strengthen our national solidarity," Aghbar said, adding that he was trying to line up foreign boxing and soccer teams to come to Ghazi Stadium in early 2012.
Ghazi, a title normally used to describe Muslim warriors who slay non-believers in battle, is a title also bestowed by many Afghans on those who fought the British army to win independence for Afghanistan in the early 20th century.
During the opening ceremony, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, U.S. General John Allen, and other military officials were presented with medals.
The new artificial pitch will be certified by world soccer governing body FIFA, allowing matches in the Kabul stadium to be internationally recognized.
"It's very important because the stadium has been renovated, it's now ready for use by athletes. During the Taliban days it was used for terrible things, and today its renaissance has begun. It's a really positive day for Afghanistan," said a U.S. embassy spokesperson.
As athletes began to parade around the stadium, Zabiullah, a 58-year old Afghan journalist who witnessed the Taliban executions, pointed at what is now the corner of a penalty area, marked by neat white lines.
"There was thief who stole something from his village ... they cut his hand, right here," he said. "A man and a woman were having illegal sexual relations. They were caught, brought here, given 100 lashes each and told to marry each other ... I also saw people beheaded and shot. Afghans will never forget these bad memories.
"Now, men and women, girls and boys, can watch a peaceful match together."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)