Kabul (AFP)

Every weekend, wrestlers from all over Afghanistan gather on a public field in the capital Kabul to compete against each other in a sport between judo and wrestling.

These informal gatherings attract large crowds of supporters who come to cheer on their favorites, usually wrestlers from their region, and taunt those they want to see lost.

"I've been fighting for 17 years," said Mohammad Atef, a muscular man in his thirties from Samangan province in northern Afghanistan, after knocking out his opponent with an expert blow.

Judo and wrestling are particularly popular in the north of the country.

The villages and regions train local champions who shine in regional competitions and sometimes enjoy national glory.

The discipline Afghans practice on this dusty terrain in Chaman-e-Huzuri Park is a mix of the two, with referees making sure that a complex set of rules are followed to declare a winner.

Fights are generally quick - a fight rarely lasts longer than a minute or two - and opponents give each other a sporting hug, regardless of the outcome.

Wrestlers from different regions of Afghanistan practice a local combat sport on September 24, 2021 at Chaman-e-Huzuri Park in central Kabul Hoshang Hashimi AFP

This sport "is popular (in the northern provinces of) Samangan, Kunduz or Baghlan", explains Mohammad Atef.

"And there are many famous wrestlers also in Chéberghân", the capital of the province of Djôzdjân in the north of the country.

"Today, my opponent was from Kunduz", a province close to the border with Tajikistan, continues the young wrestler.

"I used a spiral technique and ended up defeating him."

The matches are organized by promoters who choose the opponents according to their weight and their track record.

The winner wins a small purse, and although gambling is officially banned by the Taliban, it is evident that there are bets on the outcome of the fighting.

A wrestler celebrates his victory after a fight, during a rally at Chaman-e-Huzuri Park, September 24, 2021 in Kabul Hoshang Hashimi AFP

After each round, money slips stealthily into the hands of cunning old spectators.

Others, attentive, prefer to film the fights on their phones.

Hekmat, a 21-year-old also from Samangan, is just starting his career.

He beams with happiness after his first victory.

"I have been wrestling for about 10 years. Since childhood," he told AFP.

"I only came to Kabul in recent months after struggling in other provinces and districts," he added.

There was no sign of the Taliban's presence in the crowds gathered in Kabul - according to those gathered in the audience, the group prefers to avoid athletic competitions.

Spectators attend a sports rally of wrestlers at Chaman-e-Huzuri Park on September 24, 2021 in Kabul Hoshang Hashimi AFP

"We are organizing this ourselves," said one referee.

"It's not for the Taliban."

© 2021 AFP