Reports | 25 05 2020
The large arena, which was an ISIS headquarters before withdrawing from the Yalda town, is today a center for development and training south of the Syrian capital Damascus. The same arena that fighters have been fighting for over the past years has been transformed by civic and sports activists today into a football stadium which hosted simple local championships organized by enthusiastic young people after the departure of ISIS from the region.
Sport against war
As people live a war condition in Syria, dying and disappearing inside the country or escaping its cruelty against them, others insist on creating opportunities to vent their fears and anxieties, and enjoy the pleasures of life no matter how small they are.
Sports activities have declined significantly in recent years in Syria because of the war. Most of the sports facilities in the opposition-held areas were destroyed and became unusable because of the bomb shelling of the Syrian regime’s planes and military clashes. The famous sports city in Lattakia, on the Syrian coast, became a center for receiving the displaced people and became subject to the censorship of the security forces of the Syrian regime and to their severe monitoring of the displaced people’s movement inside and the timeline of their exit from and entry to the center. Meanwhile, the Syrian intelligence forces turned many stadiums and gymnasiums to centers of detention and torture of hundreds of Syrian oppositionists over the past years.
Entire teams have collapsed and their members dispersed. Abdullah al-Khatib, a sports center coordinator in the opposition-held town of Yalda, south of the Syrian capital Damascus, said that they prepared the square to become a playground and a place for the organization of athletic championships. “Six football leagues have been organized over the past year, three for young people and three for children,” added Abdullah. He stressed that fans attend matches, and young people in the region can have simple daily training and specific dates to use the stadium during the week.
“People need similar places and permanent sports activities, because they often relieve stress and psychological pressure caused by the nearby military clashes,” Abdullah told Rozana.
In Syrian cities and towns, we hear from time to time about civil initiatives to organize marathons, basketball or karate games and other games that many Syrians prefer to play. In the Syrian regime-controlled capital Damascus, civilian activists launched a campaign called “let’s bike,” and called on people to move more and use bicycles rather than the traditional means of transport that cause traffic jams in the city. The campaign also organized many parallel races and sports activities.
A football match video in the town of Saraqib, which is controlled by the Syrian opposition in northern Syria.
In the countryside of the central city of Hama, where Syrian opposition controls dozens of villages that have been besieged by the regime for months, activists have agreed to organize sports competitions for the so-called “former athletes” over the past weeks. They organized football matches which involved six teams from several villages and towns in the region. “We decided to allow players over the age of 40 to play again. This is the first time similar matches are held for a long time,” said captain Khalid Mirza, chairman of the championship organizing committee.
A match video of former athletes in Hama countryside, in areas controlled by the opposition.
“People need to get out of the pressure of war. They want to be happy, even for a while ... Sport opens up this beautiful window,” said Lama while looking at a group of children playing away. She added: “We come here to encourage players and rejoice regardless of the outcome!”
When sport brings Syrians together
The Syrian national team managed to qualify for the 2017 World Cup, bringing Syrian football fans and the Syrian regime opponents and supporters to television screens everywhere after the team reached the qualification threshold of the World Cup finals for the first time in the Syrian history.
For a very long time, there nothing succeeded to unite Syrians in their different orientations, but Syrian football brought them together. Despite the evaporation of Syrian sports hopes after the defeat against the Australian team and the failure to reach the finals, the debate on the encouragement of the team continued for many weeks later. Sharp debates have arisen among football fans and many people refused to encourage the football team that raised the flag of the Syrian regime in the stadiums, despite the presence of opposition players in the final squad.
The Syrian sports journalist Mazen Al-Rayes told Rozana Radio that sports brought the two existing categories in the country together. He added: “We know that the players of the Syrian team with their different orientations have been affected by the events that happened in Syria during the past years.”
He said: “Certainly, sport has contributed to this rapprochement, and the arrival of the Syrian team to an advanced stage of the World Cup qualifiers was positive. Everyone is looking for joy and hope!”
Al-Rayes asserted that “any achievement is attributed to the opposition or to the regime and not to Syria as a unified state. Sports will certainly contribute to creating a positive situation that brings together the Syrian people, but we must separate sport from politics in order for all Syrian people to rejoice in any sports achievement that can be achieved.”
How did sport survive under the sound of cannons?
Syrian athletes reacted differently to the war in Syria. Some of them took political positions and paid the price for it. They have been assaulted, arrested or even killed. Others escaped war conditions to search for their future outside the country.
The Syrian Committee of Sports and Youth declared in a statement to Rozana Radio that there are currently more than 100 detained athletes. The committee cannot really confirm whether they are safe or killed, because the fate of many of them has become unknown after they were arrested.
The former football player at al-Karamah Club, Jihad Kassab, was killed while the Army Club basketball player Sameh Sorour and the football player at al-Shorta Club Amer Haj Hashem were still detained in the Syrian regime's prisons.
Some opposition athletes such as al-Karamah football goalkeeper Abdul Basset al-Sarout and former attacker al-Wahda (Nabil Al-Shamma) fought against the Syrian regime, leaving sports to be fully dedicated to their fight within the Syrian opposition formations.
Despite the difficult circumstances that they went through, these young athletes were able to win prizes and to excel in sports, carrying out their inspiring stories with them all over the world. A large number of Syrian football players have resorted to different foreign tournaments, where they represented Syria distinctly and raised the prices of their professional contracts to high sums of money. Former player, at al-Karamah Club, Jehad Al-Hussain, moved to Kuwait in 2012 to play with Kuwaiti club Qadisia before moving to the Saudi football club al-Taawoun, where he is still playing.
Omar al-Somah, who moved in 2012 to play in Saudi and Kuwaiti clubs, recently returned to represent Syria in the Syrian national football team after being away for nearly five years because of his political positions, in addition to many other Syrian players who have been playing as professionals in Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon and even China. The Chinese league is considered as one of the most important international leagues, where the defender and captain of the Syrian team Ahmad al-Salih is representing Syria.
Syrian athletes were forced to leave Syria and move completely away from sport, such as Adnan al-Hafez, the former Syrian goalkeeper of 2011 Asian Cup, who left Homs and fled to Austria. While the former Syrian basketball star Rami Issa's departure from Syria marked a complete change in his life. In an exclusive interview with Rozana Radio, Issa stated that the political unrest had affected his career after he declared himself as opponent to the Syrian regime. He was subject to harassments during his stay in Syria since 2011 and until his departure from Syria to Qatar in 2013.
In an interview with Rozana, Issa stated that the Syrian regime authorities had closed his own basketball school that he established in Syria since 2009. The General Federation of Sports excluded him in 2011 and prevented him from participating with the Syrian basketball team and taking part in any activity or sports event.
He added that his undergraduate studies in marketing helped him to make his way to the world of entrepreneurship and stated that he aspires to establish his own company, so that is why he had to take steps towards realizing his dream. He insisted: “I have worked on more than one project and took advantage of my culture and my academic experience in order to fulfill my dream.” However, his passion for sport remained and is manifested in the basketball club he established for the Syrian community in Qatar with a group of other Syrians. The team will soon participate in Community Championship in Qatar.
Yusra Mardini, the young Syrian woman who arrived at the Greek islands during her escape from the war, inspired millions. The story of her enthusiasm spread around the world through dozens of television reports and interviews. Later, she managed to reach Germany to break the record of the Syrian swimmers in the 400 meters double and to be qualified for the Brazilian Olympics with the young Syrian swimmer Rami Anis, who had taken refuge in Belgium before running for the 2016 swimming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The young woman Bayan Juma competed with dozens of swimmers at the 2012 Summer Olympics and then won a gold and silver medal in the 50m and 100m freestyle at the Czech Championships last March.
Majededdin Ghazal won the bronze medal in France's high jump, the world bronze medal in London and numerous awards around the world. Ammar Ramadan also played football at Juventus. Omar Khribin, former football player at al-Wahda and a player at Saudi club al-Hilal, won the 2017 Asian Footballer of the Year award.
Dozens of other Syrian athletes won medals and prizes for participating in world sports, drawing the pace of Syrian sport during wartime and serving as an example of determination and courage to pursue life despite its difficulties.