Idlib (Syria) (AFP) – At the referee’s whistle, the young forward leans on his crutches and punts the football with his only leg, kicking off a match between war amputees in Syria’s battered northwest.
What follows is a different take on the beautiful game: men of all ages, some using crutches, deftly pass the ball back and forth as they sail across the field.
The ball reaches the attacker, who steadies himself on his crutches and uses his sole leg to send it flying towards the goal.
The keeper, who is missing his right arm, dives to his knees to make a save, but the ball bounces past him into the net amid cheers and whistles.
For the past month, a physiotherapy centre in Syria’s northwest Idlib province has been training 19 war-wounded men and boys to establish a football team.
Idlib is the last province in Syria still outside government control and has faced a weeks-long regime assault backed by Russia.
Some players are civilians, others are fighters — but they have been brought together by their impairments and their shared love for football.
“Sometimes, the ball crosses right in front of me and I want to shoot it with my left leg, then I feel sorry for myself because my leg’s amputated,” says Salah Abu Ali, sitting on the sun-soaked edge of the football pitch.
“Some things are still hard, like running or being fast.”
The 23-year-old player was wounded nearly a year ago in a bombardment on his native Raqa, a northern Syrian city recaptured from the Islamic State group.
He woke up in the hospital to find his leg had been amputated and decided to seek safety to the west in rebel-held territory.
– ‘Ole, ole!’ –
“When I first arrived in Idlib, I didn’t know anyone. I just thought of the past. I didn’t want to work, go out. I didn’t like to see people or let them see me,” says Abu Ali.
But when he found the football team, he says, it was like getting “a new life”.
“I lost a limb but life goes on — I want to live my life as positively as possible. I want to play football, swim, come and go.”
Founded just over a year ago, the rehabilitation centre that runs the football sessions is housed in Idlib’s Specialist Hospital.
It has treated some 900 war-wounded, including men and women of all ages with injuries ranging from simple fractures to amputations, says physiotherapist Mohammad Marea.