Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s political fortunes are looking up on more than one battlefield. Even as Russian military intervention appears to have given Assad’s government a new lease on life, sending its soccer team out to play World Cup qualifying matches allows it to project an image of normality despite four years of bloody civil war.
Syria may have suffered a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Japan on Thursday, but it still stands a chance to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates. Despite having never previously qualified for the World Cup finals and being 173rd in FIFA’s world rankings, Syria is closer than ever to reaching the tournament at a moment when the country is rent by a conflict that has claimed more than 200,000 lives and forced millions to flee their homes.
That’s a remarkable feat for a tightly controlled team that many Syrians believe represents the government rather than a nation effectively split into fiefdoms. Some of the national team’s players have joined the revolt against Assad, while others have fled the country. Some on the squad are believed to be still playing because they felt they had no choice. There’s no doubt that some of the national team’s players are happy to play and support Assad; it’s just not clear how many.
Whatever their true feelings, Syrian players have no choice but to ensure that their public statements don’t cross the Assad government. “We come from all aspects of Syria. Whether you are a Christian or a Muslim or any sector of Islam, we’re all one family. We’re playing for one team, one country,” team captain Abdulrazak al-Husein told The Guardian before the match against Japan.
His professed optimism puts a brave face on a bad situation. “At the end of the day, we’re playing for the country, hoping it will get back to the way it was. The best thing we can do is unite the people of Syria,” he said.
On the ground, however, few believe that Syria can be restored as a nation within its preconflict borders. Russian intervention is widely seen as an effort to ensure that Assad controls a swath of land stretching from Damascus to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast that could constitute a rump state built around his Alawite minority — one of several entities that could emerge from the ruins of Syria.
Those realities on the ground compel a team that ostensibly represents all of Syria to play its home games in different Arab capitals, while players don’t even have the advantage of fan support for club matches in stadiums in Damascus — from which spectators have been largely banned. The sound of fan support in broadcasts of league matches played in the capital has been replaced with that of bombings and firearms in the distance.
Syria’s recent soccer successes are all the more remarkable given that they have not been marred as in the past by allegations of wrongdoing. FIFA barred Syria from competing for the 2014 World Cup after it fielded an ineligible player in a qualifying match against Tajikistan. At about the same time, Lebanon accused Syria of fielding six overage players in an under-19 Asian Football Championship qualifier.
Political control of soccer in Syria long predates the civil war. Al-Jaish, the military-owned club that is run like a unit of the armed forces, was long Syria’s foremost club and supplied the majority of the country’s national team players. Its military backing allowed it to fend off allegations of corruption and match fixing.
While the government still controls the national soccer association as well as the national team and clubs in those parts of Syria it still administers, its control of the sport is no longer absolute. Players are spread across the globe, some playing for land and glory, others to evade repercussions for relatives left behind.
Mosab Balhous, the team’s goalkeeper, was arrested in 2011 on charges of supporting opposition movements and sheltering rebel fighters and vanished for a year before suddenly rejoining the squad in 2012. The national youth team’s folksinging goalkeeper Abdel Basset al-Saroot became a leader of the uprising in Homs before initially joining the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which he left last year to join Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front).
Swedish-Assyrian international Louay Chanko opted out of the Syrian team because of what he called “corruption.” Striker Omar al-Soma was allowed in recent years to play for the national squad despite not having fulfilled his military service and his reported sympathy for the rebellion. Another player is in Turkey, trying to make his way to Europe. Striker Firas al-Khatib, who plays for Kuwait’s Al-Arabi SC, left the national team in 2012 because he did not want to represent the Assad government. The departure for Germany of youth team captain Mohammad Jaddoua prompted the Syrian Football Association to bar players from traveling abroad except for official business.
Other players have joined a team in Lebanon fielded by the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army that hopes to one day be Syria’s national team. It sports green jerseys, the color of the anti-Assad revolt, as opposed to the national squad’s red. The team’s coach, Walid al-Muhaidi, says he escaped Syria in 2013 with some 100 athletes.
Speaking on an opposition radio station, a Free Syrian Army player charged that the national team’s flag was the flag of blood. “Leave such a criminal team. It is not Syria’s team. It is the team of a criminal regime,” he said.