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Rugby in Syria

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    Rugby in Syria

    Saw an article I thought some folk might be interested in. Currently on tapatalk so hopefully it all copies across.

    Damascus rugby team plays on amid chaos of Syrian war
    Damascus Zenobians pull together three teams to play each other but cannot afford to accept invitations to Cyprus and Dubai
    Damascus Zenobians A Damascus Zenobians RFC team photo. Photograph: Zenobians RFC

    Stephen Starr

    Sunday 4 May 2014 19.54 BST

    While most rugby fans and players tend to focus on trophies and cup finals – or promotion and relegation – during the season, for a small group of amateur players in Syria, just keeping their club alive as war rages all around them is the principal concern.

    On a recent Friday, players at Damascus Zenobians RFC held a sevens tournament among themselves. They pulled together three teams. With the almost constant threat of war on the city's doorstep, it was a small triumph for a group struggling on all fronts.

    Founded 10 years ago, the Zenobians once served as an excuse for the city's expat rugby fans to meet up. Foreigners working for oil companies and NGOs held training sessions and, later, teams from across the Middle East came to Damascus to play.

    "Back in 2003, rugby in Syria was just a bunch of fairly unfit French oil workers from Total and a few diplomats from the British embassy," said Rob Bennett, a Londoner who played with the Zenobians until he left Syria in 2006.

    Soon, Syrians took an interest. At the height of the sport's popularity in 2008, about 65 people trained twice a week in Damascus: Arabic language students, expats and locals. But since winning an amateur competition at the Dubai International Sevens in 2011, the club's fortunes, in step with the rest of the country, have deteriorated.

    Named after a Syrian queen who ruled during the third century AD, the war has cost the club its entire complement of foreign players and it has been hit by financial problems.

    When Shell and other multinationals moved out as the revolt turned to war at the end of 2011, so did the sponsorship money they stumped up. Today, the team has no dedicated sports ground and training sessions depend on funds available at any one time.

    "The last foreign player left in late 2011 when his company closed," said 29-year-old Hani, the team's number eight, who fell in love with rugby after attending a Zenobians' training session nine years ago. "Today, we can call on a core of only 10 players. They have been always there and never been absent, even for one training session."

    The team has been invited to tournaments in Cyprus, Istanbul and Dubai this summer but, as it stands, players have no money to attend. For a forthcoming competition in neighbouring Lebanon, the Zenobians must go and return on the same day to try to avoid the dangers of travelling through the Syrian countryside at night.

    "We have zero dollars in our pocket and we have been supporting the poor players in the team to travel, but we cannot do it any more," said Hani.

    In recent weeks, the far-off din of clashes in Damascus's rebel-controlled suburbs has been replaced by the sound of incoming mortar shells as rebels try to unsettle government-controlled districts of the capital before the presidential elections this summer. This month alone, at least 26 people, including seven children on their way to school, have been killed by shelling of the city centre from opposition-controlled suburbs. More than a hundred have been injured.

    "What is not dangerous in Syria?" said Mohammed Jarko, a 37-year-old mechanical engineer with the UN and the team's openside flanker. "The biggest difficulty is getting to the field." As their surroundings increasingly resemble an open war zone, the small group of rugby fanatics are torn. "For me, rugby is not only a sport, it is a culture, it is a way of life," said Hani. "But I will never leave the place where I was born."
    Tis but a scratch.

    Inspiring stuff - thanks Mr C.

    Puts some of our "first-world" difficulties and gripes nicely into context
    "There are a lot of other key decision makers who must agree with your plan."
    Johan Erasmus