Rugby- a way for the British Forces to engage with Syria?

A Fierce Sport From Britain Finds a Foothold in Syria

DAMASCUS, Syria — A former top heavyweight boxer from Syria was not the first person to fall in love with rugby’s raw brutality. But he was one of the first Syrians to do so. The boxer, Samer Tabbab, joined a motley group of diplomats and other expatriates for his first game three years ago and promptly discovered his new passion. “It’s a battle, just without any weapons,” he said with glee just before a recent nighttime practice.

Renowned for its exhausting nonstop play and rough, often bloody, full contact (players wear no pads or helmets), rugby tapped into a deep well of Syrian Arab pride.

Within three years, the small expat game mushroomed into a full-blown Syrian affair. A committee of Syrians now runs the Zenobians Rugby Club — named for the headstrong third-century queen of Palmyra, who briefly defied the Roman Empire — which plays in a hypercompetitive league with neighboring Arab countries.

On the field, the players can channel in a less destructive way some of the rivalries that play out far more bitterly between their governments.

The Zenobians, for instance, are known to fight fierce matches with the club team from Beirut, the Phoenicians. For a time, after Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, the two teams did not play at all.

“A lot of their differences, they air out on the field, especially when they play Lebanon,” said Ryan Knox, the team captain, a Briton who works for the European Commission in Damascus. “There’s a lot of passion.”

At a recent practice, Mr. Knox and a French coach shouted commands to about 30 players on a poorly lighted field on the outskirts of Damascus. Their voices were frequently drowned out by Islamic chanting from a nearby wedding hall.

A band of traditional dancers in billowing pantaloons, kaffiyehs and embroidered cummerbunds gathered at the edge of the playing field, swords in hand, before marching in procession to the ceremony next door. “Come and show the world that there is no greater pleasure than praying to God!” bellowed the wedding singer, accompanied by drums and string instruments amplified over powerful speakers.

“I want to hear you talk to each other,” Mr. Knox shouted at his players. “Let’s go, let’s go, yallah!”

Since its invention in Britain in the early 1800s, rugby’s popularity has spread to the corners of the earth, but the Syrians have stamped the game with their own special mark.

“People ask, what does Damascus have to do with rugby?” said Muhammad Jarkou, 29, chairman of the club, whose day job is at the United Nations mission that monitors the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel. “Syrians, when challenged, fight to the end. We want to exceed expectations.”

Mr. Jarkou pointed out that some Arab countries, like Morocco, which learned the sport from French colonials, have played rugby for a century. In three years, he said, the enthusiastic response from Syrians has transformed the Zenobians from an expat pickup game to a serious club whose members are mostly Syrian.

“We are competing with and beating teams from the Arab world that have had rugby a lot longer than we have,” he said, beaming with pride.

Mr. Jarkou came to the game after an invitation from a British diplomat he met at work. Mr. Tabbab, the boxer, a buff 33-year-old whose pectorals strain from a white polo shirt, works as a boxing coach; he says he was Syria’s heavyweight champion in 1998. Rugby, he said, perfectly fit his desire for a bruising fight and an exhausting workout.

“Rugby appeals to Syrian youth because while the game is played, it changes into a kind of battle, with hitting and holding,” Mr. Jarkou said. “Then a few moments after the game, enemies become friends again.”

Hani al-Hafez, a sometime college student and coach of the nascent youth rugby league, said he became addicted to the sport almost immediately after trying it in 2005.

Turnout was low at a recent practice because of a light rain, but the Zenobians were preparing for a tournament with teams from Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. That tournament was just a warm-up for the big contest in Dubai, scheduled for Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, which is drawing teams from around the world.

The Syrians’ goal is to improve on their sixth-place showing last year in the Arab division.

Not surprisingly, even sports are political in Syria, where the government strictly supervises every social organization. The rugby club initially faced suspicion because most of its members were Western expatriates and its official head a British diplomat.

Now, with the Zenobians officially under Syrian control and the club’s popularity growing — particularly with impressive wins over other Arab countries with much longer rugby histories — team members hope to be admitted to the Syrian sports federation.

“Finding recognition is tough,” Mr. Knox said. “The club might have to give up some of its independence.”

The Syrians, however, said they dreamed of one day finding a place for rugby as a national sport, alongside popular mainstays like soccer. “It would be our glory to represent Syria as the national team, instead of our club,” Mr. Tabbab said. “I hope I’m not too old to play on that day.”

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