In October, I photographed the Syrian Football Cup final in Damascus’s Tishreen Stadium, situated in one of the growing areas of the country controlled by the government.
It was a Friday evening and the fans seemed somewhat incredulous: for years, crowds haven’t gathered for big events for fear of violence. Teams – when they did play – often matched off alone.
This time, there were thousands in the stalls; while on the pitch were Al-Wahda from Damascus, and Al-Karamah from Homs. The latter’s supporters braved checkpoints along the roads, travelling 100 miles in buses to the capital.
Like everything else in Syria, football has been politicised and weaponised by the war. Last year, ESPN reported that the Syrian government had murdered nearly 40 players from the top two divisions of the Syrian professional leagues. Stadiums have been used as military bases and players forced to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime in a manner that’s used as propaganda.
Last year, there was a commotion online when national team captain Firas Al-Khatib, who had refused to represent Syria for years, eventually relented ahead of the 2018 World Cup playoffs. His sacrifice – part of a gripping bid to make it to Russia this summer – didn’t pay off and the team was knocked out. The games divided the opposition. Some said the players represented all Syrians, while others called it the “barrel team,” in a reference to brutal barrel bombing in opposition-held areas.
Billboards showing Khatib were still dotted around Damascus when I attended my first Syrian football match, shortly after I arrived in the country. Despite the underlying tensions and the soldiers lining the pitch, my photos show an evening with a certain normality, in a war that won’t be over for a long time.
Fouad Ibrahim, a 55-year-old local who has been attending matches in Damascus since he was 15, watched much of the game beside me, standing up with one hand grasped over his mouth. He said he still isn’t comfortable bringing his children with him. But the stadium, and the routine of football, brought him comfort.
Closer to the pitch were young boys, jostling for the best view, while near the top of the stands were families, some sucking on shisha pipes, their inhalations visibly deeper at the moments the play became tense.
At one point firecrackers were set off nearby. I jumped, and a man beside me laughed.
“Russia, Russia, we love you,” a group of young boys yelled at me as I walked in front of them – thinking I must be one of the regime’s military allies. They posed for a photo in front of a large portrait of Bashar al Assad, then giggled.
There’s a school of thought that you shouldn’t portray daily life in government-held Syria. If you do, you’re whitewashing war crimes: chemical attacks, systemic torture and rape, or barrel bombs that flatten houses and murder civilians. That is the reality of Syria today. But it’s also true that in both opposition and government-held areas, people are grasping for some moments of relief – and football is one thing they turn to.
In Homs, a few days later, I stumbled across a game played by teenagers with mental disabilities, who had been locked up in their houses for years when the fighting was heavy. Now, they needed activity, and were playing football to release some of their trauma. In central Aleppo, I saw an even sadder sight: two homeless children kicking an empty plastic bottle between them on the street in near darkness, while jumping up and down for warmth.
When I got back to Europe, I spoke about the attending the football match with a Syrian refugee who had fled after being imprisoned for protesting. I was surprised at his excited response. He asked if had I gone to the nightclubs in Damascus, if had I eaten good food, and if I had witnessed how friendly people are. For Europeans, he said there’s a real need to show what Syrian civilian life is like. “Now you can see we’re not ISIS.”
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter.