"I am pro pyro, but not in Syria. There's a reason why we are at war right now", says Hussein (pseudonym), a Syrian football fan. "Because we can't handle bombs, or guns, or anything else".
Imagine a game between two fierce rivals from the same city, that involves flares and top-level pyrotechnics, brawls between players, multiple goals, fans throwing water bottles into the pitch, intense penalty shootouts and a lot of respect, prestige, history and national feelings.
This guideline could be a good fit for a Celtic against Rangers, Real Madrid versus Atletico Madrid, or Roma against Lazio, but it isn't. It's the derby of Latakia, Syria, of all places, and it took place this Tuesday, involving Tishreen and Hutteen, the two clubs of the Syrian coastal city. And what is even more intriguing, is that it was a FRIENDLY. Yes.
Football in Syria
In past years, Syria is in a horrific civil war that created millions of casualties, refugees, and chaos. When you talk about Syria with someone who isn't too familiar with it, he would probably say one word: "War". But at the same time, within this disputed country, there is a vibrant football culture and traditions.
Since 2000, every summer around August, including recent years, the city of Latakia is celebrating a huge festival, called the "Love Festival". The first festival took place for the occasion of Bashar al-Assad's inauguration as Syria's president, taking over the home of his father, Hafez al-Assad.
As part of this festival, which is organised by Tishreen football club, there is a football tournament, under the name of دورة الوفا ءوالولاء الكروية - The Loyalty & Fulfilment Tournament. For the locals, the competition is familiar as the 'Tishreen tournament.' One thing is sure, with the number of water bottles who flew in from the stands, there was not much love there.
Back in the days, the tournament used to feature clubs from Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Until not too many years back, Assad himself used to attend its final. Since the war began in 2010, only Syrian teams are participating in this tournament. As expected from a country who has been an ongoing civil war affair for almost a decade, the football reality in Syria is a complicated one.
The active clubs are based in the areas controlled by Assad's government, with Damascus, the capital, Aleppo, Jableh, Homs, Tartus, Hama and Latakia. There are no foreign players that play in the league and the highest-paid players earn around $200 a month arguably, while the champions take home around $10,000, according to different reports. The prominent players, such as Omar al-Somah and Firas al-Khatib, are leaving to play abroad, mainly across the Middle East in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Kuwait.
The Coast Pearl
Latakia is known for its history, beautiful beaches and ancient port. Before the war, it was called La Odicea of Syria, but across the Middle East, it is also known for its passionate football fans and clubs. Founded in 1945, Hutteen is one of the most veteran football clubs in Syria and the first among the Syrian coast. Even though they are around for almost 75 years already, The Blue Whale has never won the title in Syria. Tishreen, on the other hand, won the title twice in 1987 and 1992. The Coast Eagles fans are famous worldwide for the pyro shows during big matches. Both clubs are notable mainly for their ultras groups.
This year, it seems that Hutteen's fortune is about to change. Rising businessman, Samer Foz, who's related to President Assad took over the club, injected funds and signed 11 new players including six national team players, and four who played for the reigning champions in the six years - Al-Jaish - the Syrian Army team.
Names like Mardik Mardikyan, Tamer Haj Mohamed and Radwan Qalaji. The latter scored one of Syrian football most famous goals - the penalty which gave Ittihad Aleppo the victory in the AFC Cup final in 2010 against Kuwaiti club Qadisiya.
Football to Forget, to Remember and to Hope
As the final of the Tishreen tournament was played in front of 45,000 enthused fans, not too long ago, the situation in the city of Latakia was different. Before everything started, Syria was counted as a stable country. "You should have lived there to notice that it wasn't that strong like it seemed to be", Hussein describes. "It was a long process, at least for Latakia. In other cities, it happened 'suddenly'", he restores the deepening process of the civil war.
In such situations, the people are dividing to sides, and each story has its own party and its own point of view on things taking place. Football was not different. Even when the Syrian national team did the unthinkable, and almost made it to the World Cup Qualifying playoffs, there were Syrians who were for and against the squad.
The fact that football has been seen by many as a tool in Assad regime’s hand, made the sport a controversial topic among many, and a unifying field for others. In the final of the Tishreen Tournament earlier this week, you could have felt them both.
The rivalry between Latakia’s two clubs was alive and kicking. A thrilling game that was going from side to side, with minimum defence and two goals for each team. Flares were taking place every few minutes, while few fans even got injured in the stands as a result of the fireworks. After the 90 minutes ended in a draw, the game went straight to penalties. The intensity, passion, rage, emotions and atmosphere were oozing out from the stadium. Just watch for yourself.
Hutteen has won after a fascinating spot-kicks battle. The players ran around the field in madness, with pure joy has spread among the blue fans. Few moments of forgetting the grim reality that actually taking place not too far away. Few moments of remembering what football was in this city, in this country, and a few moments of hope - for a better future.
Modern football has ruined the excitement from new seasons. The friendly tournaments that mega-clubs have each summer in China, USA and elsewhere, under bombastic names such as the Champions Cup or such, have ‘killed’ that anticipated instinct the average fan has, to watch his team for the first time. These tournaments have a huge part in spreading football to places it wasn’t that common before and that’s a critical mission indeed, but on the same time these tournaments have this cold feeling of ‘plastic’. Of artificiality. The players are not really happy when they score, the lineups are those who will start the league at the end of the summer, and the whole atmosphere is quite monotonic. Suddenly a match like Real Madrid against Inter Milan could end in a goal-fest with a victory to any side, but it won’t interest nobody an hour after the final whistle.
In Syria, with all the complexity of the political, social and human circumstances, a friendly game gets a different meaning. It gives hope to the people, it helps forget the depressing reality around them, and also make people feel healthy, remembering their lives before this colossal storm called ‘the Syrian civil war’ took them over. But it doesn’t mean that the Latakia derby was a calm and a peaceful match with flowers exchanged between the teams, oh no.
“It was a crazy derby, but I hope to win an official one soon”, concluded Hussein, a Hutteen fan, after the match. After all, the Syrian league kicks off soon, and his club has never won the championship, and that’s definitely something to hope for.
*Editorial team comment: After the article was published it has been reported that one of the injured fans in that game has passed away. May he rest in peace.