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Internationally suspended… yet football is still played in Syrian North

Honoring Deir Hassan and Akrabat teams for winning the first and second place in the final match of the North Stars League in Kah stadium in Idlib – 03 May 2020 (Enab Baladi)

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Football matches are still played in the countryside of Idlib and Aleppo, northwestern Syria, despite the suspension of all international championships and leagues, in clear disregard of the risk of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and all precautionary measures.    

Many observers, human rights, and health organizations have warned of the potential risk these activities and gatherings pose; however, its organizers, fans and participants think otherwise, according to interviews conducted with them by Enab Baladi.

Kah stadium in Idlib hosting the final match of the North Stars League between Deir Hassan and Akrabat teams – 03 May 2020 (Enab Baladi)

A champion in Idlib… Afrin’s championship awaits al-Fitr feast

Enab Baladi interviewed two members of the organizing committee for the Ramadan soccer tournament in Afrin, the countryside of Aleppo, who both said that the tournament was a success till now despite all challenges and siege imposed on the region. 

Fears of the virus outbreak decreased the number of teams expected to participate in this championship, as they went down from 60 to 24, which were divided into four competing groups. The first phase has ended while its final match is scheduled for the coming al-Fitr feast (the feast of breaking Ramadan fast). The total number of fans has also decreased remarkably compared to 2019 overcrowding. 

Honoring Deir Hassan and Akrabat teams for winning the first and second place in the final match of the North Stars League in Kah stadium in Idlib – 03 May 2020 (Enab Baladi)

Nabil Anqir, one of the football league’s organizers in Idlib, said that 24 teams participated in the North Stars League tournament and that the final match was won by “Akrabat” Club after beating “Deir Hassan” Club in penalty kicks since the game ended in a tied score of 2 to 2. 

The final match witnessed a mass crowd of over 2,000 spectators,according to Ismail Muhammad, the captain of “Akrabat” Club that won the final match., 

Mass attendance in the final match of the North Stars League in Kah stadium in Idlib – 03 May 2020 (Enab Baladi)

Would these sports activities stop in case of “Coronavirus” infections? 

Enab Baladi asked about the reasons behind ignoring warnings concerning the virus amid the continuation of sports activities in the region despite its international suspension. The received answers from organizers, players, and their fans were that there have been no recorded infections in the region so far; however, they doubted the possibility of calling off the tournament even in cases of infections.   

Ismail Muhammad, captain of “Akrabat” Club, said that the technical committee takes precautions against the virus. Per him, the decision to call off these championships is in the hands of the organizing committee; however, it would be better to suspend them immediately after recording any cases. 

Jasim Bashan, a player in “Afrin Club Seniors,” thinks that residents in the region cannot bear additional suffering or restrictions, considering that “life continues, with or without the virus.”

On the other hand, Adil Mansour, a player in the “Deir Hassan” Club and the runner-up of the Idlib championship, thinks that sports come first beyond and above all considerations and that the virus will not affect their health being athletes.  

Precautionary measures …are they enough? 

All official crossings in the region were closed, and in practice, they were limited to trade, and service needs amid the different measures implemented by the controlling military force in the region.  

Meantime, the “Syrian Interim Government” (SIG) conducted 332 tests on suspected cases of COVID-19, which all came back “negative” as of 5 May of the current year. 

Committees organizing these tournaments also run tests on players while distancing the fans from the pitch; however, these measures still do not decrease the risk of contracting the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a set of precautionary measures to prevent the virus infection, most notably: 

  • Adhere to personal hygiene, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water, or rub them with an alcohol-based formulation. 
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze with your elbow or a tissue and throw the used tissues.  
  • Avoid close contact with anyone with symptoms of respiratory diseases (Known later as social distancing). 
  • Cook food well. 
  • Avoid unsafe handling of animals.

The head of the arbitration commission in Afrin, known as “Abu Malek” told Enab Baladi that the medical staff in the region are in constant communication with the medical departments and that they run the necessary tests on suspected cases to ensure their safety.   

Committees in Idlib have implemented some precautionary measures too, including washing hands and disinfecting some areas in the stadium, especially those fans come in contact with, according to Nabil Anqir, one of the tournament organizers in the city. 

“Syrian Network for Human Rights” (SNHR) warns

In a report published on 3 of this month, the “Syrian Network for Human Rights” (SNHR) warned of overcrowding and physical contact between fans during these games. 

SNHR said that in a published picture showing a stadium full of fans in the village of Hazano, northern Idlib, that the simplest precautionary measures needed to curb the virus’ spread are being violated. 

The network considered that the responsibility of raising awareness and urging inhabitants to commit to measures lies with both the local council and the dominating forces in the city. It also called sports committees, the “National Coalition of Revolutionary Forces” (NCRF), and all organs and bodies in the Syrian opposition to take serious steps in this regard. 

SNHR called these entities to launch “Stay home” campaigns, and called for physical and social distancing and urged to publish advisory and educational data and brochures and follow up their implementations to ensure people’s safety from the virus.  

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