Watching the beautiful game in Islamic State run Raqqa

Watching the beautiful game in Islamic State run Raqqa
In an act of defiance, football fans in Islamic State controlled Syrian city of Raqqa braved threats from violent IS extremists to watch Barcelona v Real Madrid.
4 min read
25 November, 2015
Real and Barcelona fans in Raqqa defied the IS ban on watching El Clasico [RIBSS]

On Saturday night, millions of people across the world tuned into a battle between two giants of Spanish football - Real Madrid and Barcelona.

During the build up to the match, security was tight as the threat of terrorism hung over the Spanish capital Madrid.

Police were understandably cautious that the match attended by some 80,000 fans could be hijacked by the Islamic State group.


Last week, suicide bombers attempted to break into the packed Stade de France in Paris last, where France played a friendly against Germany.

In IS' territories - where the suicide attacks in Paris were supposedly hatched - brave Syrian Real Madrid and Barcelona supporters defied the extremist group's discouragement of "decadent European football" and got ready to watch the El Clasico.

It was also a small act of protest against the western and the Russian bombers circling overhead, which launch air raids on packed quarters of Raqqa that have cost dozens of lives including a number of children, and invariably leave IS fighters unscathed.

"In Raqqa and Deir az-Zour people love football, specifically Barcelona and Real Madrid," said Tim from Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, an activist based in the IS "capital" working under a pseudonym to protect his identity.

Residents of Deir az-Zour and al-Bukamal have witnessed similar scenes of heartbreak and devastation.

But unlike Raqqa, IS allowed the game to be screened in public in Deir az-Zour.

Perhaps it was to give residents an outlet from the daily hardships and incessent bombing they have been exposed to.

Or they might have hoped to score a propaganada scoop if a bomb dropped on a busy cafe leaving civilian dead.

After the two teams warmed up, players stood on the touchline to mark a minute's silence for the Paris dead.

This was too much for the IS religious police. "Initially IS allowed people to watch the game in cafes, but when the teams stood for a minute's silence then IS fighters became hysterical and closed the cafes."

Dressing down
In the IS capital, Raqqa, a more conservative law code is enforced.

Cafes were banned from screening the game due to prudish laws that forbid anyone from revealing the lower parts of the legs. That includes Real Madrid forward, Christiano Ronaldo.

On Friday, IS announced that men would wear a strange new uniform.

No doubt Raqqa residents would have seen the shalwar kameez - a long shirt and baggy trousers - on some of the foreign fighters roaming the city, but this was something alien for Raqqa locals.

The Pakistani national dress is the closest thing to a uniform for IS.

It is inspired by the dress of the Taliban and Afghan-Arabs who some of the IS top ranks would be familiar with from their time fighting the Soviets, and later the US, in Afghanistan.

Even when Raqqa residents play football they need to wear long trousers and they must put the match on hold and go to the mosque during prayer time. Now Tim and others will have to play in the knee-length shirt and billowing trousers when they play football.

In an act of defiance to these dogmatic edicts, Tim chose to cheer on his favourite football team, Real Madrid, from his home.

"We will challenge ISIS in their capital," said Tim. "They will not can stop us from doing the things we love it."

He might have been disapointed with the score - Real Madrid were battered by their arch-rivals 4-0 - but he was happy to have done his bit to resist IS.

In a final rebellious act of dark humour, he posted a picture on Twitter of himself outside the city's famous historical walls holding a piece of paper. It read: "From Raqqa, Save Real Madrid, 21/11/15".

"When we published the picture, we wanted to show the world that the war will not prevent us from exercising our hobbies," he said. "We wanted to show to the world a city of tenderness and that we do not hold extremist ideas."

"When ISIS and [Bashar] al-Assad end, I hope Real Madrid will come to Syria so I can watch them."