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In Idlib, Syrians find solace in soccer

With the Syrian war surrounding Idlib, the General Commission for Youth and Sports is organizing soccer and other sports leagues as a way to create some air of normalcy in opposition-held areas.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Even as war looms all around them, young Syrians in areas outside the regime's control are able to participate in athletic competitions thanks to civil society sectors of the Syrian revolution.

“We are now in the second week of the first- and second-division [soccer] competitions. All the teams are wearing the flag of the Syrian revolution on their shirts and playing under the name of the Syrian Football [Soccer] Federation," Nader al-Atrash, federation vice president, told Al-Monitor via Skype from the Idlib area.

"Despite the intense overflights by the Syrian regime and Russia in the skies of Idlib on most days, athletes are determined and adamant to keep going and complete the competitions. I wish them all the safety in the stadiums," Atrash said.

The General Commission for Youth and Sports, a nongovernmental organization opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, began its work in Syria in March 2014 and organizes sports activities, competitions and festivals throughout Syrian areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an anti-regime faction. Some of these areas include the Waer neighborhood in Homs, the eastern Ghouta in Rif Dimashq, Daraa province, Idlib province and northwestern Aleppo province.

The commission, which includes the Union for People with Disabilities, sponsors competitions in soccer, swimming, handball, backgammon, swimming, volleyball, judo, karate, wrestling, Lao Chi kung fu and kickboxing. Its teams have received medals in numerous competitions.

“When you see a field, a crowd, billboards and advertisements on the pitch, two teams in different uniforms and a team of referees arbitrating the match, you feel life has returned to the liberated areas, despite the heavy bombing and massacres committed by the Syrian regime in areas outside its control," Abdul Wahab Almkhozom, a soccer player and member of the executive sports committee for Idlib province, told Al-Monitor.

“The crowd's cheers for their teams reminded us of the old days when we would encourage our teams through the stands in the stadiums, which the Assad regime has turned into military barracks and artillery-fire bases that have nothing to do with life, sport and morals.”

A March 4 press conference drew civil society members, political and sports figures, and the Syrian and Arab media to Maarat al-Numan, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Idlib city. During the conference, Atrash said, the federation announced first- and second-division soccer clubs. The first-division league's starting date was set for March 15 in Idlib province, "coinciding with the sixth anniversary of the Syrian revolution," he added. The commission’s soccer union launched the second-division clubs March 9.

Each league includes 12 teams, which means 24 teams total competing from the various regions of Idlib. These clubs include Omayya SC, al-Numan, Sarakeb SC, Khan Shaikhoon, Ahli al-Atareb, Punch and Jabal al-Zawiyah.

On Dec. 22, 2016, the commission had signed a partnership agreement with the Syria Regional Program (SRP), an initiative of the US Agency for International Development. The SRP donated a sports bag for each player participating in the competitions, a bag for each coach and referee, as well as equipment for four large stadiums including goal nets, electronic scoreboards and office supplies. The SRP also pays the referees and covers transportation costs between towns.

"The sports equipment donated by the SRP crossed from Turkey to Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border gate in northern Syria, and the sports bags and equipment have been distributed to the first- and second-division clubs participating in the [soccer] league,” Atrash said.

The competitions are in full swing, and the soccer teams are competing to lead the standings, hoping to win points and delight the fans.

Almkhozom told Al-Monitor, “The league competitions are going well and as planned. There is tight cooperation between the General Commission for Youth and Sports in Syria and the [soccer] union, which would further develop sports.”

The Syrian Football Federation next seeks to organize a soccer league for the third division now that the first- and second-division leagues are underway. Then for the next phase, they will choose the best players to be part of a Free Syrian National Team. The commission also plans to support volleyball, table tennis and chess games, and to organize competitions in the Idlib and Aleppo areas this summer in coordination with international sports bodies in Turkey and Qatar.

Teams already established in the FSA-controlled areas have won medals in several international competitions.

In 2015, the national swimming team won three bronze medals at the Qatar International Swimming Championship. Other Syrian players sponsored by the commission also won international medals, such as Ali Baroudi, who won the bronze at the Luxembourg karate championships in April 2016.

In October, the Syrian national Wushu kung fu team, also sponsored by the commission, won 13 medals at the international Samsun Championship in Turkey.

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