DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – Syria on Monday hosted the first international basketball tournament on its soil in at least two decades, bringing an Asia-region World Cup qualifier to a crowded stadium in the capital Damascus.
The game against Kazakhstan, which Syria lost 81-71, saw the national team play at home in front of fans for the first time since the civil war disrupted security and disrupted normal life in the country.
The head of the Syrian basketball federation, Tarif Qutrash, said preparations to host this part of the tournament took place over six months. Federation officials have met with members of the Asian Basketball Federation on several occasions to allay concerns about conditions in the country, he said.
“We said for sure we were capable,” Qutrash told The Associated Press. “This is the first such tournament not in 11 years (since the start of the war) but in 20 years to have World Cup basketball playoffs in Syria.”
Syria had no infrastructure to host such an international tournament. But the now modernized sports town of Al-Fayhaa has a basketball court and a hall that can accommodate up to 8,000 people, according to the Syrian Basketball Federation’s Facebook page.
A photo of President Bashar Assad and his predecessor father, Hafez Assad, hangs above the bleachers.
The 2011 anti-government protests were quelled and the violence quickly escalated into a civil war that claimed the lives of over 350,000 people and displaced half of the country’s 23 million people before the war.
The fighting died down and Assad’s forces regained control of 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.
During the 2019 World Cup qualifiers, Syria played its “home” matches in neighboring Lebanon due to the security situation.
“Syria is changing. He won sportingly when the Asian Federation and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) declared Syria the right place to host and host the tournament, ”said Qutrash.
The Syrian national team lost to Kazakhstan in the first leg of the playoffs on Saturday, 84-74, in a game in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan. Syria and Kazakhstan play in the same group as Iran and Bahrain.
The Asia region playoffs run through February 2023, with each national team playing home and away matches. The next World Cup – which will be hosted by the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia – will take place from August 25 to September 10, 2023.
In a mishap at Nur-Sultan, the Iranian national anthem was played at the start of the first game to welcome the Syrian team, instead of the Syrian anthem. The Syrian Sports Federation has filed a complaint with FIBA.