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Ice cream and football on the road to Damascus

November 19, 2008

    British Foreign Secretary David Miliband hopes his Middle East trip will help nudge Syria away from supporting the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, but on a visit to Damascus he let slip that other Syrian allegiances were troubling him.

    “People on the streets wanted to talk about politics but also about football,” he told reporters after a tour in which he sampled ice cream from century-old shop in the heart of the ancient capital.

    “There were not enough Arsenal supporters and too many Manchester United supporters,” he said.

    Miliband, a keen Arsenal fan, is not shy about expressing his views on football. When Arsenal unceremoniously exited the Champions League in April after a 4-2 defeat to Liverpool, he criticised the Swedish referee on his Foreign Office blog and accused a Dutch player of faking a fall.

    But he was more conciliatory in Damascus, perhaps because of the hospitality of his Syrian hosts.

    “The ice cream was extremely good and the generosity of the ice cream store owners also extremely broad,” said Miliband, who struggled with a huge cone of ice cream served up Bekdash, which has been making the traditional pistachio variety for over a century.

    “They gave ice cream to all the delegation and also to the security guards.”

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