Syria are now just three games away from extraordinary World Cup qualification

October 05, 2017

One of the Syrian national team’s goalkeepers was deemed an enemy of the Assad regime and survived several assassination attempts. Another was jailed. Now Assad is using the team’s unlikely success for propaganda purposes to try and show an atmosphere of normality in the country at a time when his regime is still killing dozens of Syrian civilians every day.



[Note by Tom Gross]

I am posting three dispatches about football (soccer) and national identity. (They are split into three emails for space reasons). This one concerns Syrian football. The other two concern Palestinian women’s football and Israeli football upon the state’s foundation.

Syria, who have a few minutes ago drawn 1-1 this evening against Australia in the first of two legs, are on the brink of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

If they succeed, it will mark the first time the country has qualified for the world’s most watched event.

It would seem an unlikely year for Syria to qualify given the fact that at least 400,000 Syrians have been killed (mostly by their own government) in the past six years and about half the population driven into external or internal exile.

When BBC journalists Richard Conway and David Lockwood investigated the Syrian side’s sudden success for their documentary ‘Syria: Football on the Frontline’, Assad’s officials discouraged them from covering two car-bomb attacks, a short distance from where the players were training. The pair did so anyway. A total of 40 people, many of them Shia pilgrims visiting from Iraq, were killed.

The first article below, from the (London) Mail, asks if they qualify “will the Syrian team just be a propaganda tool for the murderous Assad regime?”

The second article below, from the Australian Associated Press, is titled: World Cup: “This is not Assad’s team, it’s Syria’s team”.

Because of the war, the so-called “Qasioun Eagles” have been forced to play their recent home qualifiers 4,500 miles away in Malaysia. After Macau refused to continue hosting Syria’s home matches, the world football body FIFA looked set to throw them out of World Cup qualifying, before Malaysia stepped in to help.

Having never before featured at the World Cup, Syria’s hopes were kept alive thanks to Omar Al Somah’s 92nd minute equalizer against Iran in the final game of the group stages, which secured third place and a play-off against Australia.

The winner of the tie, played over two legs, will play one final qualifier against a team from the CONCACAF region for a place at Russia 2018.

Not everyone in Syria sees the national team’s rise as an uplifting. Many argue the Assad regime are using the success to portray a false positive image of the country at a time when every day Syrian civilians are still being killed by the Assad regime and its allies Hizbullah, Iran and Russia.

Eight of the 32 places up for grabs at the 2018 World Cup have been claimed:

Russia (hosts)
South Korea
Saudi Arabia


Among my past articles on football:

Football killing fields: International soccer singles out Israel (Published in America, Canada and Israel)

Move the 2022 World Cup from Qatar to Gaza? (Published in The Guardian)




Syria are on the brink of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup... but will their team just be a propaganda tool for the murderous Assad regime?
By Ian Herbert
The Mail On Sunday (UK)
October 1, 2017

The country’s civil war has claimed more than 400,000 lives and forced four million into the exile of refugee camps in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

One of the national team’s goalkeepers was deemed an enemy of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and survived several assassination attempts. Another was jailed.

A talented member of the nation’s Under 16 squad was killed by a bomb a few years ago.

Syria are potentially four games away from the most extraordinary World Cup qualification

Such is the backdrop to the most extraordinary of all the World Cup play-off ties: Syria’s journey to the brink of qualification. Beat Australia over two legs, and Syria will have one final qualifier – possibly against the USA, of all countries – to earn a place in Russia.

Incongruous though it seems amid the current disintegration of the country, the roots of this success lie in Syria’s enlightened push to develop young talent, more than 10 years ago.

The Syrian FA ended the domestic monopoly of the army team Al-Jaish, who dominated because compulsory conscription meant they recruited the best players. The nation began investing in scouting and training.

Their youth teams flourished. Al-Karamah, in the now rebel-held city of Homs, reached the last four and last eight of the Asian Champions League for three successive years, from 2006.

The war meant there was not even a Syrian domestic league for several years and key players refused to play for a national side representing a regime which has been accused of waging repeated chemical attacks on civilians and the mass bombing of Homs, where the Arab Spring revolt took hold in 2011.

However the side have progressed under the management of Ayman Hakeem, an emotional 57-year-old Syrian who wept at his press conference after the decisive 2-2 draw in Tehran against Carlos Queiroz’s Iran. The imperious Iranians booked their ticket to Russia three months ago.

As the side progressed deep into the qualification stages, the charismatic Hakeem has persuaded several of a golden generation developed in the past decade to put their abhorrence of Assad to one side and return to the international fold.

They include veteran striker Firas al-Khatib, whose young cousin was killed in an attack on Homs, and Omar al-Somah, Syria’s most celebrated footballer due to his goal-scoring exploits with Saudi club Al Ahli - but this is by no means the fairy tale it seems.

Assad’s regime is providing the team’s finances and seeking a propaganda coup. In the early stages of qualification, some of the team’s players wore shirts featuring an image of Assad at a pre-match press conference.

Making it to Russia would create the impression of normality and order in his country. It would also give a headache to FIFA, who vehemently oppose political interference in football.

When the BBC journalists Richard Conway and David Lockwood investigated the side’s success for their the documentary ‘Syria: Football on the Frontline’, Assad’s officials discouraged them from covering two car-bomb attacks, a short distance from where Hakeem’s players were training. The pair did so anyway. A total of 40 people, many of them Shia pilgrims visiting from Iraq, were killed.

The film captured the huge image of Assad, pitch-side at one training session. His government funds the team via the Syrian Football Association, an arm of government.

Though the players’ wages are minimal - £55 a month - the side could not afford travel or hotels without the country’s FA. General Mowaffak Joumaa, the most powerful sports official in Syria, has attended qualification matches. He was denied a visa for the London 2012 Olympic Games, because of his links to Assad.

For many of the best Syrian talents, the war has brought obscurity, rather than a place on this international stage. Helal al-Baarini was a key member of the Under 19 side and played for Al-Karamah as a 17-year-old, but his family were forced to flee the bombing in Homs and, after four years as refugees in Jordan, ultimately found refuge in Birmingham.

A player seen as one of many great talents lost to the war is now plying his trade for Bilston Town in the Premier Division of the West Midlands League. He initially joined Third Division club Continental Star FC.

‘There was a lot of excitement when we were coming through the system together,’ Al Baarini told The Mail on Sunday.

‘A lot of the players unfortunately lost their lives during the war and a lot of players gave up playing football because of the war. At least 15 of my closest friends left football. If the war had not happened it could’ve been a great opportunity for me to be part of the team and get myself on the map.’

His team-mates included Abdelbasset Sarout - a target for Assad’s regime who survived several assassination attempts after joining the uprising.

Working with the Ballers Sports Management agency, Al Baarini said he had been invited to a trial with Birmingham City a few months ago, assisted by a caseworker at Birmingham City Council, which has helped the family and others to settle. That has come to nothing.

Some of those in exile feel that Hakeem’s players should not attach themselves to a symbol of the regime.

One refugee, Nihad Saadeddine, has established a ‘Free Syria’ team drawn from those in exile in Turkey and Germany. Saadeddine has been uncompromising about players who have returned to the fold.

He said recently that Al Khatib should be ‘condemned to the garbage bin of history’ with those who support the Assad regime.

But amid the build-up to Thursday’s ‘home’ leg – to be played 5,000 miles away in Malaysia because Damascus is not deemed safe – there are few in the country who don’t want to see Syria win.

Al Baarini will look out for the players he served his football apprenticeship with in this national side and sees his besieged compatriots back at home as the beneficiaries of another win.

Striker Al Khatib seems to feel the same. ‘The people could do with some kind of enjoyment and happiness,’ he said.

‘The reason why I have come back into the team is very complicated but I can’t talk more about these things. Better for me, better for my country, better for my family, better for everybody if I not talk about that, but if we can win and go the finals it will lift the people. The people deserve that.’



World Cup: ‘This is not Assad’s team, it’s Syria’s team’
Syria’s players have much more than football on their mind in tonight’s World Cup playoff against Australia
Australian Associated Press
Thursday 5 October 2017

Syrian midfielder Zaher Midani and his colleagues will have more than football on their mind in tonight’s first leg World Cup playoff against Australia.

“We have a huge motivation: to make the Syrian people happy,” Midani said. “The players and management hope we’ll be able to unify our people.

“Australia may have many big-name players known for their individual talents. But we have the enormous potential that comes from performing as a group.”

Syria have never been so close to a maiden World Cup berth.

To describe the team’s unprecedented qualifying run as improbable is an understatement.

On a shoestring budget and shackled by security concerns that deny them from hosting home fixtures on home soil, the world No75 nation has toppled several rivals that boast significantly greater pedigree and pay cheques.

It has all the trappings of a fairytale, a Cinderella story, of a country ripped to shreds by civil war finding hope in the all-uniting power of sport.

Last month, when Omar Al Somah scored a sensational stoppage-time equaliser against Iran to snatch Syria’s historic first World Cup play-off spot, thousands of jubilant fans danced on the streets of Damascus in a rare celebration.

However, that the giant public screen on which they watched was erected by president Bashar al-Assad’s dictator government underlines the very reason Syrians are so painfully divided over what their national team represents.

Detractors say the team normalises and legitimises the regime’s myriad atrocities while sweeping under the carpet the killings, disappearances and detainments of professional football players.

The government stands accused of using the team as a propaganda tool, another weapon against its own people.

The allegation was epitomised in 2015 when then Syria coach Fajr Ibrahim attended a press conference wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Assad’s image.

They’re all factors that informed captain Firas Al Khatib’s decision in 2012 – along with teammate Somah – to boycott the national team until the country stopped bombing its civilians.

Five years later the 34-year-old – widely considered Syria’s greatest player – accepted a call to return for the Russia 2018 push, but betrayed signs of a man trapped between a grim divide.

“I’m afraid, I’m afraid,” Khatib told ESPN in May. “What happened is very complicated, I can’t talk more about these things.

“Better for me, better for my country, better for my family, better for everybody if I not talk about that. Whatever happen, 12 million Syrians will love me. Other 12 million will want to kill me.”

Indeed, when half a nation’s population is displaced, the chasm cannot expect to be fixed by a sporting team mired in such deep moral conflict.

Regardless, the unlikely success has provided welcome respite to both regime backers and opponents.

Some, like Wafi al-Bahsh, who runs a football club in the rebel-run Eastern Ghoutan near Damascus, attempt to reconcile their feelings by separating sport and politics.

“My dream is to see Syria qualify for the World Cup,” he said. “This team is not Assad’s team, it’s Syria’s team.”

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.