DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria hosted the first international basketball tournament on its soil in at least two decades Monday, bringing an Asia region World Cup qualifying game to a packed stadium in the capital Damascus.
The game with Kazakhstan, which Syria lost 81-71, saw the national team play at home before fans for the first time since the civil war disrupted security and upended regular life in the country.
The head of Syria’s basketball federation, Tarif Qutrash, said preparations for hosting this part of the tournament took place over six months. Federation officials met with members of the Asian basketball federation several times to assuage concerns about conditions in the country, he said.
“We said for sure we are capable,” Qutrash told The Associated Press. “This is the first such tournament not in 11 years (since the war started) but in 20 years to have world cup qualifiers for basketball in Syria.”
Syria had no infrastructure to host such an international tournament. But the now modernized Al-Fayhaa Sports City features a basketball court and a hall that can accommodate up to 8,000 people, according to the Facebook page of Syria's basketball federation.
A picture of President Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez Assad, who preceded him hangs above the bleachers.
Anti-government protests in 2011 were met with a crackdown and the violence soon descended into a civil war that has claimed the lives of over 350,000 people and displaced half of the country’s pre-war 23 million population.
The fighting has subsided and Assad's forces have reclaimed control over most of the country. But a peace deal remains elusive and parts of Syria remain in the hands of armed groups backed by foreign powers.
In the 2019 World Cup qualifiers, Syria played their “home” games in neighboring Lebanon because of the security situation.
“Syria is changing. It has won on the sports level when the Asian Federation and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) said Syria is the right place to have the tournament and to host it,” Qutrash said.
The Syrian national team lost to Kazakhstan in the first leg of the qualifiers on Saturday, 84-74, in a game hosted in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakhstan capital. Syria and Kazakhstan play in the same group as Iran and Bahrain.
The Asia region qualifiers run until February 2023, with each national team playing home and away games. The next World Cup — to be hosted by the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia — takes place from Aug. 25 through Sept. 10, 2023.
In a mishap in Nur-Sultan, the Iranian national anthem was played at the start of the first game to welcome Syria's team, instead of the Syrian anthem. The Syrian Sports Federation complained to FIBA.