Middle East

Football returns to Aleppo after five years of war

Al-Ittihad supporters wave red and white flags - their team's colours - from the stands Image copyright AFP
Image caption The derby marked the first professional game in Aleppo in five years

A local football match took on significant meaning for supporters this weekend - as war-torn Aleppo saw its first live game in five years.

Local side Al-Ittihad beat their city rivals Hurriya 2-1 on Saturday.

There has been no professional football in Aleppo since it was divided between the army and rebel forces in 2011.

But the government regained complete control of the city last month in a major offensive.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The derby was a significant moment for both teams after five years of away games
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ittihad's goalkeeper helped his team to a narrow victory - under the eye of heavily geared police

The grass was brown and weathered from the winter cold, and the stadium had clearly been damaged by the war's bombing campaigns - but the atmosphere was like any local football game elsewhere.

The only hints of the division that plagued the city were a prominent banner in the stands showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the police in riot gear standing on the sidelines.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A portrait of the Syrian president hung over the crowd
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Police in riot gear stood ready to deal with any troubles

But the crowd remained upbeat, chanting to the sound of drumbeats and waving flags in their team colours.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Hurriya supporters turned out to cheer their team

"I can't tell you how it feels to return to the pitch (in Aleppo) after five years," Ittihad player Omar Hamidi told reporters before the game.

"My heart's beating so fast," he said.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ittihad eventually came out on top by a single goal

Hurriya player Firas Al-Ahmad said travelling to the game from the coastal city of Latakia - where his team has been playing this season - had hurt their performance. However, he said he was happy to be back home.

"It is our right to play in Aleppo. And we play better in Aleppo. When we play on our ground with our fans our performance improves.

"We want to make Aleppo's name high," he said.

The return of football to Aleppo is likely to ease organisational problems for the football league - which has only been able to hold games in two major cities.