Sun, Apr 16, 2017 - Page 10 News List

Soccer returns to Mosul after Islamic State ouster

AFP, MOSUL, Iraq

It was a grim time for soccer: extremists observed matches, jerseys from foreign teams were banned and even whistling was prohibited when the Islamic State group held Mosul.

Play was halted for prayers, which occur five times a day, and shorts that exposed players’ knees were also banned by the Islamic State.

Now, eastern Mosul has been recaptured from the militants and efforts are underway to rehabilitate soccer fields, even as the battle for the city’s west continues on the other side of the Tigris River.

“When we were playing, they were watching us and some of them carried weapons, and they prevented us from wearing foreign teams’ uniforms,” said Osama Ali Hamid, a 26-year-old player wearing a Borussia Dortmund jersey.

“If one of us arrived wearing a shirt with the logo of a foreign team, they’d remove the team’s logo with scissors,” Hamid said.

Excitement dominated a recent match in eastern Mosul, at which young men gathered around a pitch that has been covered in new artificial turf to cheer on their comrades.

“Now we are playing without DAESH monitoring,” 23-year-old Laith Ali said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They imposed rules on us.”

However, the young men can now keep playing even when the call to prayer sounds from the minarets of the city’s mosques.

Soccer is wildly popular in Mosul, as it is in other areas across Iraq — indeed, the sport has been one of the few consistent unifiers in a long-divided country.

The Mosul Club was one of the best-known soccer clubs in the country and was preparing to return to the Iraqi Premier League in 2014, when the Islamic State seized the northern city, preventing the players from going to qualifying matches outside.

The club’s buildings and facilities are located on the eastern side of Mosul, but the main stadium is in west Mosul, which Iraqi government forces are still battling to retake from the extremists.

In 2012, work began to build a new stadium on the same spot with a planned capacity of more than 20,000, but like the Mosul club’s Iraqi Premier League aspirations, those plans were also thwarted by the Islamic State assault in 2014.

Mohammed Abdulkarim al-Mimaari, head of the Youth and Sports Department in Nineveh Governorate, of which Mosul is the capital, said that 12 soccer fields in the city have been restored.

In Mosul, the department is holding a sporting event on the first day of each month, dubbing it “Sports Day,” spokesman Omar Shamseddin said.

Islamic State members “were playing with us in the beginning, they were treating us well. They are Iraqis from the local community,” Hamid said, but added that they later “began saying in their sermons in the mosques that the battlefields are better than the playing fields.”

“They even prohibited whistling” during matches based on the belief that it would cause “devils” to gather, 25-year-old player Mustafah Nour said.

Violating the prohibition resulted in two or three days in jail, he added.

“But now, we play freely,” Hamid said.

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