x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

In Damascus, the spirit of the sport scores over politics

Syria's football fans love a winner - and their enthusiasm is almost as noisy as Al Jazeera's Assam al Shamaly.

DAMASCUS // As usual the Rawda cafe had been full long before kickoff, the aisles jammed with football fans and shisha pipes. As the whistle sounded to start the match, a strong cool wind poured in through the open windows, the kind that so often comes to relieve a Damascus evening, wiping away the day's heat. It was Brazil's first game of the tournament, against the unlikely North Korea. Despite all the recent political talk of a Damascus-Pyongyang alliance none of the Syrians jammed into the cafe appeared to be on North Korea's side - at least not to begin with.

For the World Cup, the Rawda cafe, a stone's throw from the Syrian parliament building in the centre of the capital, has had an ear-bleedingly loud sound system installed. Which means 90 minutes of full-bore vuvuzelas and, more to the point, the full-throttle commentary of Assam al Shamaly. For anyone who does not watch the matches on Al Jazeera Sport in Arabic, al Shamaly is a force of nature, a man who can speak for hours at a time without so much as a pause for breath. His commentary is a sort of exuberant improvised prose poem set to football - utterly relentless and thoroughly loved by Syrian football supporters.

With the first half over and the score still 0-0, some of the men and women in the Rawda crowd were beginning to think the unthinkable: a small but growing number swung behind the surprisingly resourceful North Korean team. Then, inevitably, Brazil hammered in two goals - also greeted by the cafe patrons (and the commentator) with wild delight. When the North Korean side managed to get a goal of their own in the dying minutes, half of the audience sat in stunned silence, while the rest jumped into the air, one young man shouting, "God is greater, go Korea".

It was not to be, and Brazil got their win. For the next hour or so, the centre of Damascus was given over to impromptu celebrations. In fact, the same thing has happened most nights here since the tournament started. As the evening game ends, the celebrations start. psands@thenational.ae