By Srishti Kalra
The words sport and war immediately cloud the mind with petrifying images of Taliban executions in Kabul’s soccer stadium. Or the infamous 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, when 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and eventually killed by a Palestinian terrorist group.
In 1945, when George Orwell wrote ‘The Sporting Spirit’, he argued that sport was not a means of promoting peace between nations but was more likely to cause tensions than solve them. What does this mean today in a region racked by a mounting refugee crisis, relentless conflict, increasing casualties and endless political tumult?
Football in Aleppo
This week, war-torn Aleppo witnessed its first live football match after five years. Aleppo, once Syria’s industrial and financial centre, has been divided since 2012 with government forces positioned in the western area of the city and rebel fighters on the east. Last year, the government managed to seize control over eastern Aleppo with Russia’s intervention on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad but only after catastrophic bombings and airstrikes led to the death of 300,000 people and ignited one of the world’s worst refugee crises.
The Syrian city currently stands in ruin with much of its cultural heritage including the Ottoman Treasure – the Souk al-Madina, Carlton Citadel Hotel, Mosque of Aleppo, and the Citadel of Aleppo burnt to ashes or significantly damaged.
The devastation has also seeped into the most popular sport of the city – football. Before the civil war, the future of Syrian football seemed bright and prosperous. But with players and managers either leaving in protest or in fear for their own safety and games being possible only in Damascus and Latakia, the sport has suffered a major setback. This derby between two local football clubs – Al Ittihad and Horiyah at the Riyat al-Shabab stadium – serves as a sign of the return of some semblance of normalcy to the city.
But signs of bomb damage around the stadium and wounds in fans’ memories continue to fester. “The last match I went to was in 2010. Of course, there were a lot more of us then. I was with my friends. Now some of them have travelled and others, died,” said Mohammed Ali. Horiyah–player Firas al-Ahman said that despite the ongoing problems in the city, it was good to be home and further added, “It is our right to play in Aleppo. We play better in Aleppo. We want to make Aleppo’s name high”. The Horiyah ultimately lost the game to Al Ittihad by 2-1.
Sport cannot alter the grim reality of the bloody conflict, or lessen the agony of physical and cultural damage of a once flourishing city. But in a city christened ‘synonymous for hell’ by former UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon, even a few hours of delight surely is a silver lining.