Despite a brutal civil war that has persisted for six years, the Syrian national soccer team is performing wonders in the world of international sports. Just under a year ago, against all odds, the team managed to advance from the second group stage of the Asian World Cup qualifiers to the final group stages. Grouped with soccer powers Iran and South Korea, and strong teams from Uzbekistan and Qatar, as well as China, the Syrians seemed to have little to offer. But six months later, after seven of the 10 rounds in this stage have been played, the Syrians are surprising everyone, including themselves.
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Syria’s 1-0 victory over Uzbekistan last week put it just one point behind the Uzbeks, currently in third place, and two points behind second-place South Korea. And despite the 1-0 loss Tuesday afternoon in a tough away match in Seoul, the Syrian team still has a very slim chance of making it to the next stage. (The top two teams advance; the third-place team plays the third-place finisher from the parallel group for the right to play in the inter-confederation playoffs.)
For a team that had never before been close to advancing to the World Cup, this would be a terrific achievement – prior to this competition, Syria never advanced beyond the first stage of the Asian Championships. But for a team whose country is fractured and embroiled in terrible suffering, and which has to host its “home” games 7,000 kilometers away in Malaysia, this is nothing short of incredible.
Of course a country under an economic boycott and torn apart by war cannot host its games at home. But why must its team travel all the way to Malaysia, a place where it has very few fans? It was extremely difficult for Syria to find a place to place to host its games. Some Middle Eastern countries refused out of opposition to President Bashar Assad's regime. Others feared that doing so would cause political or security problems. The Syrians actually came within one day of having to announce their withdrawal from the World Cup preliminaries because they had nowhere to host their games. Only a last-minute agreement allowed them to play at Tuanku Abdul Rahman Stadium in Malaysia.
Syria did not concede a single goal in its “home” games, recording 0-0 ties against Iran and South Korea, and the 1-0 win over Uzbekistan. The Syrian defense is particularly strong: The team has lost twice 1-0 in away games in Qatar and Uzbekistan, but also beat China 1-0, a result that evoked roars of criticism from Chinese fans and media. A record of two wins, two ties and two losses, and a 2-2 goal difference after six games is not just a notable achievement in the final group stage, but also a testament to the team’s character and resolve.
The Syrian team doesn’t represent the entire Syrian people. One reason there is even a relatively serious soccer league in the country is so that the Assad regime can use its success for propaganda purposes. If the national team does well, it can serve to show that normalcy is preserved in the country, including in its sports system.
But ultimately, everyone knows that’s not the case. Tarek Jabban, the national team’s assistant coach and himself a former player for the national team, told the BBC that one of the team’s aims is for as many of its players as possible to play outside of Syria, so that they can maintain and improve the skill level. He explained that the Syrian soccer league is in a bad state, and that the players lack adequate facilities and support.
A number of Syrian soccer players play in Kuwait. Others play in Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and China. Ahmad Al Salih, the right back and team captain, plays for Hunan in the top Chinese league; Firas Al-Khatib, the top goal-scorer and an experienced forward, plays for Al-Kuwait in Kuwait; and Omar Khrabin, another excellent forward, plays for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia.
But not everyone is able to leave Syria. Osama Omari, who is also Khrabin's cousin, is a talented midfielder who plays for Al-Wahda from Damascus, and is the top goal scorer in the Syrian League. Omari was also drafted into the Syrian Army, and serves in the Defense Ministry in Damascus. He is released from duty for games and practices but is not permitted to leave the country. Many players who left the country did so before the situation deteriorated, or like Khrabin, were permitted to do so under the law that exempts an only son from military service.
For some time, the Syrian League’s games had been confined to Damascus and Latakia. But since January, following the military strides made by the regime, games have also been held in Homs and Aleppo – again, as an attempt to portray some kind of normalcy. But there are hardly any spectators, whether because people cannot afford to pay the token ticket prices, or because they’re fearful of being in large crowds. There are no foreign players, which also brings down the level of play. The Syrian government pays the players’ salaries – about $200 a month, more than the average wage of an official employed by Assad's regime. But mostly, it seems the league is being kept alive in order to show the world that “all is well” and soccer is still being played.
The away game in South Korea was a huge undertaking for the Syrians. The loss means the team has no chance of reaching second place in the group and automatic advancement to the World Cup. But with home games in Malaysia against China and Qatar this summer, and a final game in Iran, the fight for a playoff spot is a possibility. It might be hard to support a team that is in part the Assad propaganda machine. But it’s also hard not to root for a team that is playing so hard against all odds.