Professional football has been played in Aleppo for the first time since 2011 as Al-Ittihad beat local rivals Hurriya 2-1 in front of an excited crowd at Riayat al-Shabab Stadium, eagerly anticipating a return to normal life. After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, rebels held control of the eastern part of the city resulting in vicious bombing campaigns and thousands of deaths in Aleppo, and approximately 300,000 throughout Syria. As a result, the Syrian football league was relegated to holding matches in the two major cities of Damascus and Latakia and unable to provide the citizens of Aleppo with a welcome distraction from war. However, as of December 13, 2016, the Syrian government has re-established control over the whole of the city; creating more stable conditions in which civilians can rebuild their lives.
Though the match was played for competition points, its real significance lies in its symbolism of the intent to move forward from the horrors of the last five years. The grass on the pitch was brown, there was visible bomb damage to parts of the stadium from years of airstrikes, riot police covered the sidelines and yet none of that mattered. In fact the only sign of the struggle was an Ittihad flag bearing the face of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Supporters of both teams were united in their joy at seeing their favourite teams again; and the match was held without incident. The players, for their part, relished their role of restoring some sense of peace and normal life to the city. According to the BBC, Ittihad player Omar Hamidi said, “I can’t tell you how good it feels to return to the pitch (in Aleppo) after five years… my heart is beating so fast”, while Firas Al-Ahmad a member of the opposing Hurriya said, “it is our right to play for Aleppo… We want to make Aleppo’s name high”.
While it is clear that re-establishing normal life in Aleppo will take a significant amount of time and capital, and the effects of the war will never truly abate, this football match represents the advancement of peace and stability in the city of Aleppo and under such conditions, innocent civilians may begin to rebuild the lives that have been taken away from them over the last five years.
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