Football in Syria shows the social and political change of a nation

From the Ottoman era through the French Mandate and beyond, football’s development in Syria is a tale of cultural change and social adaptation, charting a pattern of development followed by decay.

The story of football in Syria is the story of the country's social and political development
Al Majalla / Alamy
The story of football in Syria is the story of the country's social and political development

Football in Syria shows the social and political change of a nation

At the end of the school year in 1910, two students returned to Damascus from the American University in Beirut with their books, kit, and a new sport.

Hussein and Nuri al-Ibish had grown up with running, swimming, and horse riding, but what they brought home was a team game that could be played with a ball and four rocks, the latter creating two sets of goal posts.

The aim, they explained, was to kick and otherwise manoeuvre the ball into the opposing team’s goal without handling it and without injuring the opposition.

Within three years, the young men of Damascus were smitten, even if the sheikhs were not. Teams began popping up, and although the First World War (1914-18) got in the way for a while, its popularity continued to grow.

By 1919, Prince Faisal bin al-Hussein (son of the leader of the Great Arab Revolt, Sharif Hussein bin Ali) gave his support to the brothers, encouraging them to become professionals. He also ordered the construction of a large green stadium.

Nuri al-Ibish, a future cabinet minister, trained the first Syrian football team, which played against British troops in 1920. Faisal and other notables came to watch.

Nuri’s team won 4-2. Faisal was thrilled and bought each of the Syrian players a gold watch as a reward. From that point on, football in Syria had well and truly arrived, and the sheikhs’ objections quickly faded.

Reflecting society

The story of football in Syria reveals much about the way in which the country has been shaped by social change, its popularity 100 years ago having been channelled as a means toward modernisation.

Spreading in part from foreign military barracks, where local people could it being played, football provided a framework to promote free-and-fair competition within agreed rules and the mutual endeavour of sport.

It was also instantly identifiable as different from other popular games at the time, in that its dynamic centred on legwork, agility, and the control of a moving ball with the feet.

Within three years, the young men of Damascus were smitten, even if the sheikhs were not.

Until then, Syria's traditional sports emphasised upper body strength, from arm wrestling to stone lifting and sword fighting.

It also had an element of strategy, like other popular games of the time such as backgammon and mancala (a two-player strategy board game played with small stones and rows of holes).

Football still had obstacles to overcome. For instance, Syria's traditional sportswear of wide-legged trousers hindered visibility and manoeuvrability, making early games both difficult and humorous, before shorts were introduced.

A sign of the times

Despite its introduction being a little disjointed, football caught on quickly and spread widely to become an integral part of Syria's sporting culture.

This reflected not just a change in sporting preferences but a wider openness to global cultural influences.

It enriched the local social fabric with a new form of communal engagement and entertainment. It also seemed to fit the times.

In 1919, Prince Faisal supported two brothers, Hussein and Nuri al-Ibish, to set up Syrian football, which they did.

A younger generation of Syrians were at the vanguard of social change and transformation following a long period of Ottoman rule.

There was a rising educated class of students, intellectuals, and politicians who acquired more influence and aspired to lead public opinion, embrace change, introduce social reform, and shape Syria's national identity.

They were teaching, building, and heralding new social values. Into that environment, football became more than just a kickabout. It became part of a much wider shift and, crucially, a means toward broader public consciousness.

This in part explains why it and other sports faced resistance from traditional religious authorities, leading to tensions between clerics and sporting communities.

The appeal of football was particularly strong among the young. Those boys (as they were then) are now old Syrian men who can still recall a time when football was new and yet to triumph over the naysayers.

Football finds a way

There were far more practical problems, too. Close-knit communities in densely populated urban areas struggled to find the space, but footballers found a way.

Syrian children got good at making use of any public space to create a makeshift football pitch.

Impromptu games would spring up in cramped and ancient alleys or narrow spits of land between tall buildings.

In short, football proved adaptable. Children would kick anything that vaguely resembled a ball. It had an impact.

Football even changed what Syrians wore. Traditional garments like the tarboush (fez) and sherwal (baggy trousers) were gradually supplanted by more European outfits, like trousers and shirts, in which it was more comfortable to play.

It seemed to fit the times. A younger generation of Syrians were at the vanguard of social change and transformation following Ottoman rule. 

This change in fashion was a preview of changes in social attitudes, and not just toward sport and physical activity.

By the early 20th century, sporting events were increasingly captivating spectators, and football took its place alongside the more traditional contests.

Its popularity was boosted by take-up in the best schools. Elites educated in French and English embraced it, as did students in the prestigious Maktab Anbar institution and Ottoman schools.

Faisal, who became Syria's king in 1920, conferred his blessing on both the sport and the brothers, and this let them create teams and acquire land outside Damascus for football practice.

Promoting social values through competitive play, football also encouraged healthy rivalry among educational institutions at a time when students bridged the gap between traditional norms and emerging modern values.

These students were engaged in a conscious effort to reshape Syria's national identity, adding the likes of sports and theatre to its social fabric.

In seeking to promote ethical competition, rules-based team sports served as a means of promoting fairness and equality, while helping to build communal bonds.

Even women and mothers got involved to show support, which symbolised its rapid acceptance and integration into Syrian culture.

The early teams

The Eastern Club in Damascus was founded in 1919. The match against the English, attended by Faisal, celebrated the prince as a liberalising figure. It also cemented football as an important cultural and social phenomenon in the country.

The appeal of football was particularly strong among the young. A century ago, football was still new and yet to triumph over the naysayers.

During the 1920s and 30s, Syria was developing its own identity, as it distanced itself from its definition by colonial powers. Political and civil groups sought social cohesion and saw football as part of the jigsaw.

Syria's educated elites were happy for modern sports to help promote public engagement with their blend of entertainment, participation, and purpose.

Among the first clubs were Al-Sharq and Barada, the latter founded in 1927 during the Great Syrian Revolution when Syrians of all stripes rose up against the French.

Numerous clubs emerged in Damascus, including Al-Fayha. They typically began with gatherings in homes or cafes.

The founders actively sought those with experience of football then financed their activities through communal or political donations.

This was how Muawiyah Club was established by Khalid al-Azm, a political figure who later became a key statesman in the 1950s. It showed how sports were interwoven within the fabric of Syrian society.

During the French Mandate period, authorities set up two clubs aimed at building camaraderie among their forces.

One comprised civil police, the other military police. They were run by Syrians with French oversight and had both Syrian and French members.

Syria's elites were happy for modern sports to help promote public engagement with a blend of entertainment, participation, and purpose.

Barada attracted members from various neighbourhoods, starting a trend that continued into the 1930s with the formation of Qasioun and National.

Syria's Armenian community, which started settling in the country after their displacement in 1915, established clubs across several provinces, maintaining a vibrant social and sporting presence to this day.

These clubs served not only as a means of social integration but also as a vehicle for channelling a collective identity.

From the 1930s

The new decade saw new clubs, many spreading beyond Damascus. Aleppo became a big footballing centre.

Initially led by the Armenian community and later bolstered by the city's cultural elites, clubs there included Ibn Hamdan, Aleppo, and Al-Fityan.

In Homs, the establishment of the Khalid ibn al-Waleed Club in 1928 and later, the Al-Fidaa Club, underscored the sport's burgeoning appeal.

The engagement of Syria's provinces with Europeans – either through the mandate or educational exchanges, and a governmental apparatus deeply connected to Damascus – were instrumental in the proliferation of clubs.

A Syrian watches a football match in front of the Roman ruins in Palmyra, Syria

In his memoirs, the prominent Syrian democratic politician Akram al-Hourani detailed the creation of the Abu al-Fidaa sports club in Hama.

In particular, he detailed its involvement in the 1945 revolution against the French mandate, showcasing the clubs' role in social cohesion and political mobilisation.

The club's formation with support from donors, plus its appointment of a coach from Beirut, exemplified football's influence on the socio-political landscape and its ability to adapt to—and drive—change.

The establishment of the Sports Games Association in the Euphrates region in 1937 and the founding of the Rafidain Sports Club by the Assyrians in Al-Hasakah in 1936 further highlighted its role in community building.

These clubs played a vital role up to the 1960s, amid economic and social change.

This included industrial agricultural projects led by prominent families that turned Al-Hasakah into a dynamic centre of social activity, fostering a new social elite.

By the 1950s, Al-Hasakah's clubs rivalled those of Aleppo, buoyed by familial and economic ties.

Raqqa, too, experienced a surge in club activities. This expansion wasn't confined to the northern and eastern regions.

Even provinces like Daraa and Deir ez-Zor embraced the football culture, indicating a nationwide embrace of sport as a means of defining regional identity.

Post-independence clubs

After Syria achieved independence in 1946, its society became vibrant, with employment, social participation, political engagement, and sports all playing a part.

This was an era of significant change. Clubs' names bore clues. Out went the locally- inspired insignia, in came more universalist generic names, signalling a move away from local identities to a national identity.

In Latakia, the Al-Salam club renamed Al-Sahel, reflecting this broader identity.

The formation of Al-Jala'a club as a competitor to Al-Salam was part of a deliberate strategy to foster competition and diversity within the sporting landscape.

Additional clubs like Al-Nahda, Al-Arabi, Al-Wathba, and Jableh soon followed, enriching the Syrian sports scene.

During a period of relative political openness, these clubs played a pivotal role in strengthening local bonds while advocating for the moral and ethical aspects of sportsmanship.

Football went from pastime to cornerstone of national pride and community development, celebrated by a cross-section of society including intellectuals, politicians, and dedicated family fans.

This flourishing sports movement had crested the wave and soon began to lose momentum, as political currents shifted again with the arrival of Nasserism and the subsequent rise of the Ba'ath Party.

Getty Images
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose pan-Arabism marked a turning point for football in Syria.

It marked a turning point for football, with sports clubs increasingly co-opted into the political and military fabric of the country.

Syria was not alone in this. In Egypt, the military exerted dominance over sports and social institutions under Marshal Amer.

In Syria, the Ba'ath Party grew more powerful via armed struggle, then sought to assert its control over the state and society.

The heyday is over

Syria's vibrant civil sports movement was overshadowed by political and military oversight. It seemed the end for independent and socially-driven sports clubs.

From a high point of nearly 80 sports clubs, the numbers have dwindled over time. This posed a challenge for the Ba'ath Party.

The militarisation of society was all-pervasive and extended to the realm of sports. In the 1970s, a General Sports Federation began oversight of sports nationwide.

Football went from pastime to cornerstone of national pride and community development, celebrated by a cross-section of society.

Club names took on revolutionary imagery. Al-Ahli in Aleppo became Al-Ittihad. Damascus's Al-Ahli became Al-Majd. Qasioun became Al-Ghouta. Al-Ghassani became Al-Thawra. Al-Sahel became Tishreen in honour of the 1973 battle.

Football, as with other sports, had been fed by grassroots support. Now it became a centrally managed entity, the regime's approved messaging foist on fans.

Clubs stopped serving as hubs for social interaction, forfeited their unique identities and became a key instrument for reinforcing central social control.

Once the Ba'ath Party assumed power, no new clubs emerged. Half of the existing clubs were dismantled. The rich grew disengaged.. Clubs lost their identity. Very few even dared have a vision.

Instead, they became hindrances to progress, emblematic of division rather than progress, breeding grounds for violent rivalry.

The Ba'ath Party thwarted any semblance of social cohesion from clubs and they lost their family-oriented atmosphere, morphing into exclusively male spaces with predominantly male audiences.

From colonialism to independence, football's enigmatic development in Syria is a tale of cultural change and social adaptation, from a society liberated to a society stifled.

It helped communities grow and bond. It helped those forging a new national identity break with the past. And it helped later regimes get their message across to millions.

The story and evolution of football in Syria is endlessly fascinating and still ongoing.

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