- Football is massively popular in Syria, but the country has never qualified for the World Cup
- Before the troubles in Syria, no one would support the Russian team
DAMASCUS: With days to go before the World Cup, bustling markets in Syria’s capital are blanketed in the flags of competing countries — but host Russia is taking center stage.
The flags of usual favorites Argentina, Germany, and Brazil are still displayed prominently, but years of steadfast Russian support to the Syrian regime has earned it newfound football fandom.
Its tri-color hangs from ropes strung across the packed streets of the Al-Qaymariyah market in Damascus’ Old City, and pokes out of a bouquet of flags planted outside one shopfront.
“Before the troubles in Syria, no one would support the Russian team. It was a regular team, not a particularly strong one,” said Ahmad Al-Mudramani, an avid football fan who runs an electronics store in Al-Qaymariyah.
“But after they intervened in Syria, they found supporters here,” he said.
Mudramani manages a Facebook forum on football, where 70,000 users discuss sports news ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which opens on Thursday.
Bent over his laptop, he scrolls through streams of commentary and even surveys.
Most, Mudramani said, lean toward “supporting strong teams like Brazil and Argentina. But Russia keeps coming up in the comments and polls.”
Football is massively popular in Syria, but the country has never qualified for the World Cup. It came the closest this year but lost in a heated match against Australia.
Still, Hamoud Khamees displays Syria’s two-star flag among dozens of others outside his modest storefront.
Perched on a wooden chair, a wide grin across his face, he fields questions from passersby on the prices: Medium-sized flags go for 500 Syrian pounds (about $1), while larger streamers cost 2,000 pounds, or $4.
Bandanas are just 200 pounds, making them popular among younger children, said Khamees.
With the first match inching closer, flag sales are up.
“I bought lots of Brazilian, German, and Argentinian flags, and I put Russian flags in the store window,” he added.
Nearby, loud music is blaring from storefronts in the Suwayqa market, known for its electronic products.
Mahmud Abu Malek, 50, is stacking boxes of what he calls “decryption” machines — used by Syrians to intercept satellite TV channels airing the World Cup without paying the exorbitant subscription packages.
He just received a fresh delivery, but is already on the phone to his supplier telling him to prepare more.
“There’s a huge demand this year to follow the World Cup,” he told AFP, but legal access to satellite channels is unaffordable for most Syrians.
Instead, they pay Abu Malek the equivalent of $12 for the machine and a week of access, or about $1,150 to tap into the channels for a year.
Even that is expensive for most fans in Syria, so anyone backing Russia is unlikely to shell out as the team is not projected to make it past the first round.
“No one wants to buy an expensive machine to watch Russia play,” he said.
A few stores down, Bassem Al-Rez is offering special discounts at his shoe store for any Argentina fans who walk in. But he still has a soft spot for Russia, he said.
“Argentina first, but Russia’s a friendly country. We’re allies in war and in peace, so we’ll be allies in sports too,” said Rez, 33.
10 civilians killed
An air raid on a village in northeast Syria held by Daesh killed at least 10 civilians including three children on Tuesday, a Britain-based monitor said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes on Tal Al-Shair in the northeastern province of Hasakeh were carried out by the US-led coalition fighting Daesh in Syria and neighboring Iraq since 2014.
There was no immediate confirmation from the coalition of the strike, the latest in a series of raids to have reportedly caused civilian casualties in the area in past weeks.
Tal Al-Shair lies in a small pocket still held by Daesh militants near the Iraqi border in the south of Hasakeh, where a Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by the coalition has been battling the militants in recent days.
According to the Observatory, a coalition airstrike last week killed 11 civilians in the same Daesh-held area, and another 12 lost their lives in coalition raids on June 1.
The coalition told AFP it was carrying out an investigation into the June 1 allegation.
Earlier this month, it admitted to nine more civilian deaths, bringing to 892 the total number of civilians it acknowledges to have killed since it intervened in Iraq and Syria.
Other monitors like the Observatory and Airwars say the toll is much higher.
The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on sources inside Syria, says it determines whose planes carried out strikes according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions involved.
Daesh has lost most of the cross-border caliphate it declared in 2014.
In Syria, it was pushed back by separate offensives — one by Russia-backed regime troops and another by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces alliance.
But the terrorists still hold slithers of Eastern Syria and have a presence in the vast Badiya desert running from the center of the country to the border with Iraq.
More than 350,000 people have been killed in Syria’s war since it started in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests.
It has since spiraled into a complex conflict involving world powers and foreign militants.