I was in Aleppo during the last World Cup. It was the end of June 2010, before the “Arab Spring” and before the Syrian uprising. Flags were everywhere, mostly Brazilian flags. The Assad regime’s normal sensitivity to the public display of other country’s national symbols was waived for the World Cup, when Aleppines of every creed and none advertised which team they were cheering for by flying flags from their balconies or even hanging them from their upstairs neighbors’ balconies to completely shade their own. Newsstands were selling flags of all sorts of countries for the fans. To look around the neighborhoods I visited, it seemed that top-ranked Brazil had the largest number of fans in Syria’s commercial capital. One warm summer night, I was kept awake by shouting in the streets below and firecrackers; this was the victory celebration for the fans of one team or another. When the Netherlands eliminated Brazil in the quarter-finals, some Dutch friends of mine joked that they should not go outdoors.
After over three years of civil war, it’s hard to remember the rhythms of normal life in Syria before. Although the US government tried to isolate the Syrian regime as a Russian ally and a supporter of terrorism, because of its alliance with Hezbollah, many Americans thought of Syria, if at all, as a tourist destination with some amazing Roman ruins and medieval mosques. The violence has made Syria more notorious now, linked with chemical weapons, dictatorship, and terrorism. The colorful flags of the 2010 World Cup have been removed, replaced in most of the country by the more sober red, white, and black of the Assad dynasty and the all-black standard of the al-Qa’ida affiliates. The violence being committed now will leave long shadows on the Syrian population, even after the fighting stops. But once the fighting stops, however it stops, the Syrians will need to rebuild a civil society. And to do so, they will need to remember a day when sports loyalties generated good-natured rivalries which could be advertized in green, yellow, and blue from open balconies.