NEA KAVALA, Greece – Refugees are having a field day.
Soccer players and fans from Syria and Iraq got a break from life at migrant camps to play a match organized by Greece's state migration agency, launching a tournament that will include local amateur teams.
The first game on Friday was slow-paced, with white lines on the pitch unfinished. Spectators were seated on grass or on the terrace of a half-built home to get a decent view.
But players and organizers described it as a first small step toward a normal life for those who escaped war and were left stranded on their journey to Europe.
There was dancing and drums at half time, children on the sidelines shrieked at every turn of the game, and after 90 minutes, the game ended 1-1 for Hersos and Nea Kavala — teams that took their names from refugee camps near Greece's northern border.
"This (helps us) forget the conditions inside the camp ... In the camp you are under pressure. The game helps us make a little bit (of) fun with our friends," Sherran Abdiy, a refugee from Aleppo, Syria and goalkeeper for Nea Kavala team.
The 21-year-old pharmacology student's family home was destroyed in the civil war, and he traveled to Turkey and then Greece with his mother and 15-year-old brother. He hoped to make it to Switzerland and continue his studies.
Instead he spends his days in a camp hastily set up by the Greek army and where authorities struggle to provide basic facilities.
There are 60,000 people in Greece like him, halted on the trip to Europe after countries closed borders in fear of being flood with refugees. Most of the stranded have seen little of their host country, since camps are generally located outside towns.
Reluctance by European Union countries to meet relocation commitments, or ignore them entirely, means migrants are looking for ways to settle.
Fahed Al Haboun, 22 and also from Aleppo, turned up Friday to cheer for Hersos. His 5-month-old daughter was born here.
"I'm glad to see this happening," he said, speaking in broken English, standing at the side of the pitch still strewn with weeds. "I don't have nothing to do (at the camp). I don't have to do anything, just waiting for my interview (for relocation) all the time."
This week, the government launched a program to integrate refugee children into the state school system, starting with 1,500 kids bused out of camps to 19 schools. The program is set to expand to 20,000 children.
Greek parents at one school staged protests, voicing health concerns, while at another they gathered outside to applaud the refugees as they arrived.
Giorgos Perperidis, the government coordinator at the refugee camps of Hersos and Nea Kavala, organized the game. He also helped set up the necessary donations that included the uniforms provided by topflight Greek soccer team PAOK: Light blue for Hersos, black-and-white stripes for Nea Kavala.
"People at the camps have to be given something to do, and they chose sport," he said.
"There will be more games with local clubs in the area and we already have the next match lined up. It's not always easy to get things done, but we do what we can," Perperidis said.
"There's no rivalry here. Everyone was really excited about today's game. It's great to watch. These are good moments."
Derek Gatopoulos and Theodora Tongas in Athens contributed. Follow Kantouris at http://www.twitter.com/CostasKantouris