Syria na­tional bas­ket­ball team hoops against odds

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Khalil Khoury drib­bles a bas­ket­ball deftly down the di­lap­i­dated gym where he and the rest of the Syr­ian na­tional team train, pass­ing it through his legs be­fore a silky-smooth lay-up.

Since Syria’s con­flict erupted in March 2011, Khoury’s team has seen its ranks dwin­dle and its op­tions for train­ing venues shrink. But it still prac­tises and com­petes, in­clud­ing in the pres­ti­gious FIBA Asia Cup championship to held on Au­gust 17-27 in neigh­bour­ing Le­banon.

Among the league’s big­gest chal­lenges has been re­tain­ing tal­ent, with play­ers em­i­grat­ing, do­ing their mil­i­tary ser­vice, or be­ing in­jured or killed in the con­flict.

One tell-tale sign of the strug­gle is the un­usu­ally large age gap within the cur­rent lineup. “I’m the youngest player on the team,” said 19-year-old Khoury, who moved di­rectly onto the squad from the youth league. “My team­mate Michael Madanly is about 20 years older than me,” he told AFP dur­ing a break from prac­tice at Al-Fay­haa sports cen­tre in Damascus.

“Some play­ers have gone abroad and many oth­ers to do mil­i­tary ser­vice, so it’s nat­u­ral for play­ers to stay on un­til they’re older,” said the small for­ward.

“But it af­fects phys­i­cal fit­ness, and it will show when we play with young teams.”

The head of Syria’s Bas­ket­ball Fed­er­a­tion, Daniel Zoalkefl, said the na­tional league has “lost more than 120 play­ers” who have joined the ex­o­dus from their war-bat­tered coun­try. Jot­ting down the names of the 12 play­ers at­tend­ing prac­tice, Zoalkefl said the sport also faces other chal­lenges. With the con­stant power cuts that plague Syria, he has to find fuel for the gen­er­a­tors to en­sure Al-Fay­haa-the Syr­ian cap­i­tal’s most famous gym-can even keep the lights on.


The gym it­self is run down and its air con­di­tion­ers have been out of or­der for months, so train­ing ses­sions are usu­ally held at night when the mer­cury eases to more bear­able lev­els.

Gov­ern­ment war­planes can be heard over­head on their way to or from raids on op­po­si­tion-held ar­eas near the cap­i­tal.

The thud of shells fired by rebels onto nearby neigh­bour­hoods echo through the gym dur­ing prac­tice.

“A mor­tar hit right where I’m stand­ing, and an­other one hit over there,” said Zoalkefl as he scrib­bled com­ments on the train­ing ses­sion in a small notebook.

“Dozens of shells have landed near the cen­tre... Things aren’t easy, but we’ve got­ten used to it. That’s war.” The con­flict’s erup­tion six years ago led to the sus­pen­sion of Syria’s na­tional league, which was re­placed by pro­vin­cial leagues un­til 2015 when the na­tional com­pe­ti­tion was re­stored. On the court, power for­ward An­thony Bakar fired the ball back and forth with his team­mates be­fore dunk­ing it, helped by his im­pos­ing 199 cen­time­tre (six foot five) height. “The sit­u­a­tion was very tough at the be­gin­ning of the cri­sis. The league was sus­pended for a year and ev­ery prov­ince was play­ing by it­self,” said the 24year-old. For­eign play­ers, who num­bered about a dozen, quit and fled Syria. “It had neg­a­tive con­se­quences on the league’s strength. It’s not easy to con­vince a for­eign player to stay and play in a coun­try at war,” Bakar said.


The con­flict has also made life more dif­fi­cult for the league’s coaches, who have found their op­tions for train­ing lim­ited by the vi­o­lence. “It’s not just play­ers who have em­i­grated, but coaches too. For those who stayed, it’s hard to get out to a field to train be­cause of the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion,” said Hadi Dar­wish, who be­came head coach in De­cem­ber.

Go­ing to train­ing camps abroad is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble. “There’s a sort of semisiege. There are many coun­tries that won’t let us in, and visas are dif­fi­cult to ob­tain and take lots of time,” said Dar­wish.

“Our chal­lenge is to build some­thing, to build a na­tional team that is ready to com­pete and rep­re­sent the coun­try in the best way pos­si­ble,” said Ne­nad Krdzic, a Ser­bian coach. There were no spec­ta­tors for the evening train­ing ses­sion, just a hand­ful of man­agers and league of­fi­cials.

Just be­fore prac­tice ended, the power cut. The back-up gen­er­a­tor was bro­ken, so coaches were forced to wind up train­ing early. Shoot­ing guard Majd Ar­basha knelt down, ex­hausted and try­ing to catch his breath. He pines for the glory days of the sport. “I miss my friends. I miss the crowds and the packed halls,” he said. “Bas­ket­ball puts a smile on your face. But today it puts a lump in our throats.” —AFP


DAMASCUS: Syr­ian bas­ket­ball team play­ers take part in a train­ing ses­sion at a sta­dium in Damascus on July 17, 2017. Since Syria’s con­flict erupted in March 2011, bas­ket­ball player, Khalil Khoury, has seen his team’s ranks dwin­dle and its op­tions for train­ing venues shrink. But it still prac­tises and com­petes, in­clud­ing in the pres­ti­gious FIBA Asia Cup championship to be held on Au­gust 17-27 in neigh­bour­ing Le­banon.

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