Syria’s army has won many victories in more than two years of civil war, but its men went down to defeat on a Damascus football pitch against local team Al-Wahda.
Before a crowd of nearly 2,000 at Tishrin Stadium on Tuesday night, Al-Wahda’s Hamud Hamudi scored against the army’s team in extra time for a 1-0 victory to clench the Syria Cup.
The army supporters had cheered their team on with chants of “God, Syria, the army and nothing else.”
Orange-clad Al-Wahda fans responded with their own chant of “God, Syria, Bashar (al-Assad, Syria’s president) and nothing else,” singing along to the beat of a drum.
But they all came together to chant slogans against US President Barack Obama and NATO.
Obama and his allies had been mulling military strikes against Assad’s regime for alleged chemical attacks on August 21, in which hundreds are said to have died.
But the threat of action was put on hold after Russia proposed that Damascus hand over its chemical arsenal to the international community for eventual destruction.
Artillery rumbled in the distance, but the crowds still turned out in relatively good number for a city that is usually deserted at night.
For some in the stands, the match was simply a chance to get out and to relax.
“I did not come to support the army or Al-Wahda; I came to share the Syrians’ joy, even if it is not complete,” said Brahim, 23, who came to the match with a Syrian flag draped around his shoulders.
A few seats along from him, his friend Mustafa, a 35-year-old steelworker, leads the army fans’ chanting with a loudspeaker.
“It’s not because of the war that I support the army, but I have to say that because of the events I like them even more because they are fighting every day. It’s normal to support them,” he said.
In the opposing stands, Rawan Tinawi came with her sister from Douma, a suburb to the northeast of Damascus.
“We have had enough of hearing the news. We came for a bit of fun. We’re sick of being stuck at home,” she said.
On the pitch, as the game dragged into extra time, the players were growing tired and the cramps started to kick in. But Hamudi’s goal electrified the Al-Wahda fans and drained the army supporters.
Ashraf Eitouni is philosophical about the defeat.
“Today Al-Wahda wanted to win more than we did,” he conceded.
“We won the championship 10 days ago, and that’s much more important. The army always wins, even in sports. With 12 championships, we are the most titled team,” he said, consoling himself.
Less than two weeks ago, in the same stadium, the army team beat the police squad in the championship finals 1-0.
But Al-Wahda’s coach is savouring his team’s victory.
“This year we played with the best team that didn’t lose any of their games in the championship or the cup. It’s their first defeat,” said Ghiyath Dabbas, 33.
“But, even if we’re on opposite teams, we’re all in the same trench” facing the rebellion, he added.
General Muwafaq Jamaa, a 40-year army veteran who heads the Syrian Sporting Federation and awarded the cup trophy to Al-Wahda, said he was happy to see the number of spectators who turned out for the game.
“We are not scared of America, or of its Tomahawks,” he said, referring to the cruise missiles Washington had said it could use in strikes.
“You can see that here. All these people came even though it’s late and we are playing at night. Syrians like a challenge.”