More than 300 children in rebel-held northwest Syria kicked off their own football World Cup on Saturday, with organisers hoping to shine a light on communities battered by 11 years of war.
The excited children took part in the opening ceremony at the municipal stadium in Idlib, some wearing the jerseys of this year’s World Cup teams, the AFP news agency reported.
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Their 32 squads correspond to the nations that have qualified for the World Cup, which starts on Sunday in Qatar, and their competition opened with a match between the host country and Ecuador, reflecting the official schedule.
“I represent Spain and I hope we win the cup,” gushed 12-year-old Bassel Sheikho, who works in a garage.
While children from camps for displaced people in Idlib and surrounding areas make up 25 of the teams, the other seven teams are children who work in industrial zones in the region.
Syria’s war has killed approximately half a million people and displaced millions more since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
The Idlib region is home to about three million people, about half of them displaced.
Children aged 10 to 14 have been training for months to take part in the “camps World Cup”, said Ibrahim Sarmini from the NGO Violet, which organised the tournament.
He said the event aimed to encourage children to participate in sport, and to “focus international attention on displaced youth and those who work”, who are sometimes among those most exposed to deadly risks.
The last pocket of armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime includes large swathes of Idlib province and parts of the neighbouring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.
The Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) armed group, led by al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, is dominant in the area but other rebel groups are also active.
The “camps World Cup” matches will continue throughout the official tournament period, and the final will be organised in a camp in Idlib.
Sarmini noted that winter was set to begin in full force, with rains expected to once again bring misery to the ramshackle, poverty-stricken camps.
“I hope the whole world will turn their attention to the displaced and will support them so they can return to their homes as soon as possible,” he said.