How a basketball tournament triumph revived Aleppo with new life and hope

5 min read
24 April, 2024

Last month, the Al-Hamadaniah Stadium in Aleppo, Syria, blazed red as thousands of fervent basketball fans came together for a cup final not seen in a sporting event for over a decade.

The ancient city, reeling from years of tragedy and disaster, was filled with energy and celebration.

Amid the thundering noise, fans turned the court into a cauldron with slogans of 'Welcome to Hell' as the home team Al-Ittihad Ahli faced off against their Damascus rival, Al-Wahdeh.

Al-Ittihad Ahli basketball fans celebrate a successful win at the arena
[Muhammad Damour]

Hours later, Ahli's captain Nadim Issa jubilantly lifted the trophy in front of his home city as elated Aleppo fans descended into cheers.

For a city that has only seen trauma for the past decade, sport has given its residents a new lease of life.

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Nadim Issa’s role in the city transcended beyond basketball during the deadly earthquake of February 2023

The athlete led a rapid response team, transforming the Al-Hamadaniah arena into a shelter for refugees and coordinating the distribution of aid, housing, and communication services, as Aleppo's sports facilities became a comforting refuge in this tragic time of crisis.

From victory to unity

Speaking exclusively to The New Arab, Issa shares what this victory means for Aleppo.

“It feels amazing," he begins. "Being part of this team that has such a huge fanbase who cheer us on at every single game is an honour. We have players who have travelled from across the world and get to play in front of 15,000 people — they all feel something special.

“There is something truly magical about holding up a trophy before the very community that raised me," Issa continues. "And as families gather to witness this momentous occasion, all the years of hardship endured by this city fade away.

“One of the most remarkable things about sports is that it unites people, they come here for the love of the game. And since our country has been healing, it has been incredible to see foreign players visit your country; we are proud of ourselves.”

American basketball player, Avelon John Junior, who has been with the Ahli team since 2023, also shares his feelings about lifting the cup in Syria. 

“It has been amazing," he tells The New Arab. "The atmosphere for the finals was like nothing I have ever experienced before.

"We have the best fans and it means so much to me to have been part of something special like this that affects so many people. I am grateful to have helped bring this joy to so many people and to be able to be a part of this history,” the player adds. 


A post shared by AJ John (@avelonjr)

“Winning the cup was an unbelievable feeling," John Junior continues. "This is the first title I have won in my professional career and I’m so grateful that it was here in Aleppo in front of the most amazing fans I’ve ever seen.

"This really was the most incredible basketball environment I’ve ever participated in."

Avelon John Junior during the tournament game
[Muhammad Damour]

Andree Michelsson, a Swedish-Syrian player, who also recently joined the Syrian national team, spoke to The New Arab about his experience in Aleppo.

“I loved the atmosphere and the environment," he says. "The fans have supported us a lot this year and stuck by us. I appreciate all the love, I can see it in their eyes — they want to win almost as much as we in the team do, and that’s why I feel such a winning mentality here.

"We are fighting together to make Syria great again,” Michelsson added.

Andree Michelsson holds the well-earned trophy following Al-Ittihad Ahli's huge win
 [Muhammad Damour]

Basketball: A symbol of resilience and healing 

For the people of Aleppo, basketball has a different meaning; those who have witnessed difficult times can now savour some good moments in their country. 

Ahmad Naasani, the head of the Ahli Club supporters’ group in Aleppo, reveals the struggles of bringing support back to the stadiums and to the game.

“During the war, all sport stopped. But now things are slowly changing. I had to go around with supporters knocking on people's houses to forge a new community and now we have a big following," Naasani says. 

“I’m proud," he adds. "We now have 600 core members who attend meetings and vote and that’s just the mainstay — the Syrian basketball federation has supported us. In Syria, generally, football is the big sport, but here in Aleppo it's all about basketball."

And of course, no fanbase is complete with an ultra-section. Muhammad Majadmi is one of the first names courtside, cheering his beloved Ahli on.

“Aleppo is heaven on earth for us," he tells The New Arab. "And celebrating such a momentous win in the same stadium that was a haven for us during the earthquake is a one-of-a-kind feeling. This same spot has restored our joy,” Majadmi said. 

While this win gives the people of Aleppo a cause for celebration, it also reiterates the importance of how sport can act as a healing mechanism for a city still dealing with the collective memory of its many traumas.

For many, this victory has given a ray of hope in dark times.

Danny Makki is an analyst covering the internal dynamics of the conflict in Syria, he specialises in Syria’s relations with Russia and Iran

Follow him on Twitter: @danny_makki