Football: Syria activists brave war to watch World Cup

BEIRUT (AFP) - Young Syrian opposition activists living with the constant dangers of more than three years are war are braving bombardment by government forces and jihadists' threats to watch their favourite World Cup teams.

In Raqa province, controlled by powerful jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), one young activist and avid football fan risked the extremists' anger to sneak out to watch Spain play the Netherlands.

"Members of ISIL raided the cafeterias on the first day of the World Cup, and forced the young people to go pray," said the activist who identified himself as Abu Ibrahim.

"Football, they said, distracts the mind from worshipping God. So I watched Friday evening's match, Spain-Netherlands, at a friend's house. We were worried they might raid us there, so we made sure not to make a sound even when there was a goal," he said.

Abu Ibrahim, a Brazil fan, is one of the few in Raqa who dares to communicate with the outside world about his opposition to ISIL, which has a reputation for abuses including summary executions and kidnappings.

"They want everything to be sad and bleak. But I love life and I love football," Abu Ibrahim told AFP via the Internet.

Abu Ibrahim mocked Friday's surprise loser Spain on his Facebook page, comparing the Dutch 5-1 win to the lightning offensive launched by ISIL and other militants in Iraq.

"Holland took over Spain today just like ISIL invaded Iraq," he joked.

Abu Anas, a volunteer in a field hospital and student living in Moadamiyet al-Sham near Damascus, also follows the tournament religiously.

"Six of us gathered at my house to watch the Spain-Netherlands match. But just like the Syrian revolution itself, each of us supports a different team," he laughed.

Deep divisions within Syria's opposition have plagued their revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's government.

"The atmosphere in these gatherings is fun and relaxed. It's an opportunity to enjoy life, and to forget our daily exhaustion," he said.

Moadamiyet al-Sham was once a rebel bastion, but after a suffocating year-long siege that starved civilians including children, the town's rebels signed a truce with the government.

But now the World Cup has started, residents have decorated the town's orchards and set up big screens, injecting new life into a town blighted by war, Abu Anas said.

In the north-western province of Idlib, where rebels have been advancing despite regime air strikes, activist Ibrahim al-Idelbi put on his Spain T-shirt and sipped the traditional yerba mate hot drink as he watched the game.

"We try to find new things to do, anything that will help us forget about the siege, bombardment and death," he told AFP.

He admitted he was a little sad when Spain lost, "but you know, it's just a game. As soon as the match was over, I just went back to work."

Even in southern Damascus' Palestinian camp Yarmuk, under an army siege that has seen more than 100 people die from starvation in a year, people watched the games.

"Wonders of the siege: the (England-Italy) game is being shown free of charge for all in the camp's youth centre, and I'm on my way there!" one activist in Yarmuk said on Facebook.

Meanwhile in rebel areas of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, people huddled around TV screens in underground shelters.

"It makes people feel safe to watch the game underground, free from stress. You have children, young people, and even (rebel) Free Syrian Army commanders," said Omar al-Jeblawi, an activist from Latakia province.

But as a war that has already killed more than 162,000 people rages on, some people cannot bring themselves to follow the World Cup at all.

Adam al-Khaled from Damascus, an activist opposed to the regime who lives in areas of the city held by the government, is one of those.

The stress from his work, which is highly dangerous because of the government's pervasive security apparatus, means he now has little time to spare for the sport he loved.

"My brother and my neighbour are watching the games. I used to watch football all the time before the revolution," said Adam al-Khaled from Damascus, a humanitarian and political activist.

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