It was a Saturday night in Aleppo back in June, 2008. Even though it was around 10 o’clock in the evening the air was still dry and thick, bristling with the sound of street vendors and taxi cabs peddling their wares along one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.
I turned a corner and saw a little billboard on the pavement with two flags scrawled on it at the doorway to a fairly run-down looking cinema. Russia were playing the Netherlands in the quarter-final of the Euro 2008 championship. As a roar from within spilled out onto the street, I bought my ticket and joined the fray.
Russia was on electric form and the crowd – shirts off, shouting, stamping their feet and waving glass bottles of fizzy soft drinks above their heads – was right behind the men from Moscow.
“Who are you supporting?” I asked a man in the seat next to me – having squeezed myself into the upper circle of the cinema. “Russia!” he shouted back – putting a thumb in the air. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Wales!” I yelped. He stared blankly back. “Have you heard of Ryan Giggs?” I barked into his ear. His face lit up. “Yes! Manchester United!” he bellowed. And here our noisy, 90-minute friendship in this cinema-cum-soccer stadium began. By the time Russia belted the winner into the goal with a hundred and sixteen minutes on the clock the cinema felt close to caving in on itself. Men jumped up onto the stage in front of the screen, whirling their shirts in the air and screaming with delight about Russia’s ascent into the semi-finals.
At that time, Aleppo was a city of some three-million people. Many have now fled but many are unwilling or unable to escape the bombardment that it is enduring today.
Reporters who have entered Aleppo over the past few days describe a city largely in ruins. Like so much of Syria’s war, putting the pieces of the jigsaw together to understand the difference between then and now is a grim prospect for those of us looking in.
Unlike back in 2008, Brazil’s World Cup will be a distant thought for those living in the besieged city. But via the crackle of a reclaimed radio set or the fuzz of a television running off an improvised electricity supply, it might just be the exploits of 22 men on a distant field that offer the most fleeting of escapes for those in the shadow of a seemingly endless war.
Tomos Lewis is a producer for Monocle 24.