Stadium in Syria's rebel-held Idlib hosts unlikley football game

Idlib (Syria) (AFP) –


Battered by air strikes, the main stadium in the rebel-held Syrian city of Idlib hosted a soccer friendly on Wednesday, re-opening after three years of closure.

Idlib has been hit by heavy aerial bombardments by President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The city is largely controlled by Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel coalition dominated by a former branch of Al-Qaeda. It is the capital of Idlib province, home to a patchwork of other rebel groups.

The stadium restoration is only a superficial one -- just enough to allow informal matches.

Wednesday's game pitched the White Helmets, rescuers in rebel-held zones, against a team from the University of Idlib. Both groups helped carry out basic repairs on the municipal facility.

The stadium had been heavily damaged by "the strikes that systematically targeted it, but we cleared the ground of wire, re-installed windows and doors and removed rubble," Yahya Arja, head of the White Helmets' Idlib branch, told AFP.

The stadium's re-opening has brought a moment of light relief and pride for players and fans.

"This stadium is the epicentre of football in Idlib province," said Assaad al-Assaad, a student who came to cheer on his university team.

"The reopening means that life and sport continue, despite the war and the shelling."

On the back of the curtain-raising friendly, the stadium will now host a mini-tournament between six teams, set to take place over the next few days.

The competition has been dubbed the "Martyrs of Ghouta," in memory of 1,700 civilians killed in Eastern Ghouta, a former rebel enclave outside Damascus retaken by the regime earlier this month.

Rebels and civilians evacuated from Ghouta have been transferred to Iblib.

Unleashed by the regime's repression of peaceful protests in 2011, Syria's civil war has become increasingly complicated and fragmented, while pulling in foreign powers.

Since Russia's entry into the conflict on Assad's side in 2015, the tide has turned in favour of the regime.

More than 350,000 have been killed and millions more have either been internally displaced, or fled as refugees.