With Syria’s unlikely World Cup campaign finally coming to an end, Rory Clarke examines what the team means for the devastated country.
It took Tim Cahill’s rescuing header, deep into extra time in Sydney, to end one of the most unlikely World Cup qualifying campaigns of recent times. Syria, a country synonymous with violence and upheaval, ranked 75th in the world, had come through almost surreal adversary to make it to a play-off tie with Australia. Forced to play ‘home’ matches 5,000 miles away in Malaysia, their campaign was shrouded in suspicion and their political loyalties questioned.
“Forced to play ‘home’ matches 5,000 miles away in Malaysia, their campaign was shrouded in suspicion and their political loyalties questioned.”
Indeed they had only made the playoffs after a sequence of increasingly unlikely results in Asian Qualifying. Recording credible victories against, Qatar, China, and Uzbekistan, they also secured precious draws against regional heavyweights South Korea and Iran. It was in the match against the latter that Syria secured their play-off place, snatching a 2-2 draw.
Having drawn the first leg of the play-off 1-1, Syria came into the match in Sydney with a greater chance than many had expected. This surprise was compounded when they took a shock early lead, through Omar Al-Soma’s curled effort. Although Australia were not behind for long, as Tim Cahill quickly scored the first of his headed brace, Syria dominated long portions of the match, to the frustration of the increasingly-anxious Australian crowd. It was not to be however, as the veteran Australian captain rose again to send the watching home fans into delirium.
“The Qasioun Eagles,” as they are known, had performed better than Australia could ever have expected. Prevailing only after extra-time, Cahill’s 50th goal for the Socceroos sent the rapturous crowds in Damascus, watching on large public screens, reeling in despair. Images of these crowds, have been used extensively by Syrian State television, who strove to project a semblance of normality. They believe that by showing patriotic Syrians celebrating, or commiserating even, amongst the bombed buildings will remind the world that Syria is more than a civil war. For many, the football team is a symbol of hope for the much maligned state, a sporting statement to the world that there is more to Syria than bombs and death.
“For many the football team is a symbol of hope for the much maligned state, a sporting statement to the world that there is more to Syria than bombs and death.”
However the political element of this team cannot be ignored. This was apparent in the immediate aftermath of the Iran match. Firas Al-Khatib, a player who had previously boycotted the team in protest, thanked “president Bashar al-Assad for honouring all the players” in a television broadcast. He was followed by the rest of the players who parroted a similar line of gratitude towards Assad. It was a grizzly reminder that even in the midst of euphoria these players were cognisant of their assigned role, whether they liked it or not.
Much has been made of FIFA’s refusal to suspend the Syrian FA for their political affiliation with the regime. In 2015 Ayman Kasheet, a former player, brought evidence before FIFA of Assad’s nefarious influence. This evidence included the fact that over 35 Syrian professional players have been killed by government forces with a further 13 jailed. Furthermore he showed that the team was being deliberately used for state propaganda. The Syrian coach, Fajer Ebrahim appeared at a press conference in November 2015 wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the face of Assad. In rejecting Kasheets’ evidence, FIFA said that it was an internal matter and that any complaints should be directed to the association itself.
Many Syrian natives feel that they cannot support the team, as it would be seen to be advocating the activities of the regime. This is apparent in the remarks of several Syrians who, forced to flee, have rebuilt their lives in Australia. George Salloum and Anas Ammo, both Syrian refugees, were interviewed by the Guardian before the Australia match. Condemning the regime and the team alike, they claimed that the projection of normality represented by the team does injustice to the millions who have suffered. Indeed, so alienated were they against their homeland that both men went so far as to say that they would be supporting Australia. Conversely, the regime accuses these grumblers of undermining one of the few symbols of hope to emerge from the war-torn country since violence burst out.
“Many Syrian natives feel that they cannot support the team, as it would be seen to be advocating the activities of the regime.”
Other high-profile incidents have recently come to light. ESPN reported that Fira Al-Ali, a Syrian footballer, made a dramatic escape from a team training camp upon hearing his 13-year old cousin had been killed in a government attack. He has since accused the current players of “carrying the flag of death.”
While President Assad may claim that the country has united in support of the team, it is clear that, in the end, it has simply become another battleground for the two opposing sides in this bitter civil war. Government-approved players and managers have lauded the regime, while former players have protested publicly against the team’s continued existence. Football has rarely proved to be so divisive.