Kicking Soccer Balls While Militias Shoot Kalashnikovs

PHOTO: Nour playing soccer

Nour and his fellow Syrians have been playing soccer, the universal sport, as long as they can remember. They never imagined they would be exiled to a sandy field in Lebanon, scoring goals to the sound of gunfire.

But when you're a Syrian refugee, skills don't always translate to earnings.

"When I met Nour, I knew right away he was a top player," says Bilal Nablousi, who is Lebanese and runs a local soccer academy for kids in this northern Lebanese city, where thousands of Syrians have taken refuge as the conflict intensifies along the neighboring Syrian border. "But the top club teams would have had to pay him as a foreigner since he's Syrian, so they rejected him. They'd rather get three Lebanese for his salary."

Regardless of the talent of amateurs like Nour, only well-known Syrian players, like Ahmed Akkari, are awarded contracts.

Unable to join the Lebanese clubs, a group of Syrians in their 20s decided to form their own team. They play for the love of the game, and to remind themselves of a time before war forced them off their home fields.

"We made this team for ourselves," says Nour, 23. "It's not something official."

Tripoli is an unstable city in an increasingly tense country. On its streets there are flags of the revolution, photos of local Lebanese men killed fighting alongside Syrian rebels, and posters of the notorious Sheik Ahmad Assir, whose firebrand politics led the Lebanese army to raid his compound in Sidon (southern Lebanon) last month.

On a recent day, members of the soccer team were at a popular local café.

"People here know the truth about politics," says Omar Warwar, the team's only Lebanese player. Despite growing tension between locals and Syrians, the 25-year-old says he wants to play with the group because "I feel Syrian inside."

Bilal, a Syrian player, catches sight of two young boys passing by the café on a motor scooter. "The match is on at 6!" he yells. "Be sure to be there, it's an important game!" The boys speed off to gather their friends. "I'm the mukhtar (local leader) of soccer," he says. On his phone, he has a photo of players from another amateur team. They smile broadly, wearing banners across their chests with the tri-starred flag of the Syrian revolution.

In Syria, the players say they could make a living from their sport. Their division would pay $10 per goal, and players would earn $20 each if the team won a match. "Syria is a better place to play. The population is 27 million and here there are only 4 million, so the pool is larger," says Nour.

Soccer and Politics Don't Mix

Back in Syria, the national team continues to play. But these players harbor no ill will against those who stayed behind.

"To play soccer doesn't have to do with being affiliated politically. Even if they stay in Syria it doesn't mean they have chosen a side. They just can't express their views," says Abdel Rahman. "Back in Syria, it's not necessarily about your political views, but joining the national team can depend on connections and money. When we play we don't talk about politics."

But politics were the end of the Nowayir club in Hama, where Nour and his friend Ziwar, 23, once played. One of Syria's premier teams, it attracted thousands of fans before ceasing to exist in the early days of the revolution. Nasr Maksoud, director of the local field, says his teams always play to the sounds of gunfire. / Alia Haju for Syria Deeply

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