Syrian forward Mahmoud Al-Mawas cuts through two Chinese defenders, caresses the ball away gently from the on-rushing goalkeeper, maintaining his balance all the while, to score the only goal of the game. Three points settled in a tenacious fashion in front of approximately 37,000 spectators.
Prior to the crucial match in Xian, only eight Syrian players were able to meet up at the training camp in Damascus. Moreover, the squad was unable to schedule any friendlies after their last qualifier, a month ago, against South Korea. The Federation of Syrian Football awarded the players 800 euros for their efforts against China.
The Syrian Civil War – now in its sixth year – has displaced more than six million internally, 4.8 million outside Syria as refugees, and killed approximately 470,000 Syrians, with no end in sight. Deaths in multitude have reached normalcy on a daily basis as the cities across the nation are flooded with violence inflicted upon by the Assad regime, the Russians, the Turkish, NATO, Islamic State and rebel forces.
Yet the game had continued within the country, since the early days of the war. Unlike football in Iraq during times of conflict, where the domestic league was abandoned for two seasons in 2002-03 and 2003-04, league football in Syria never ceased.
The 2012-13 season saw all games being played in Damascus due to security concerns, however the following seasons observed games in Damascus and Latakia with 16 to 20 teams divided into two different groups, with top three of each group advancing to the play-offs, which would determine the league champions. During this time, several teams across the nation had withdrawn on numerous occasions due to a lack of funds.
So it was natural for top Damascus-based and regime-influenced teams like Al Jaish, Al Shurta and Al Wahda to end up as league leaders in recent years. These sides would, and continue to, represent Syria in the Asian scene via the second continental tournament, the AFC Cup.
Remarkably, prior to the conflict and considering their stature in the modern game, Syrian football was thriving at all levels, as regional opponents were trying to stake a foothold in Asian football.
Al-Karamah Sporting Club, based in Homs and considered to be one of the oldest clubs in Asia, had won the league in four uninterrupted attempts since the 2005-06 season. During those impressive years, they also reached the finals of the coveted Asian Champions League in 2006, losing against South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
Similarly, 185 kilometres to the north, Al Ittihad – in now haunted Aleppo – was making some noise as well having qualified to the AFC Champions League group stages on two different occasions prior to the uprising. In today’s times, the only football one would see in the ancient metropolis is of a few kids playing on the streets on a calm day amid the ruins.
On the global stage, the string of improving domestic situation led to the national team qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar, a first in 15 years. The Syrians did not qualify past the group stages, however they packed their bags having felt a sense of achievement and a bright future.
In March 2011, all the positive efforts put forth was undone when protesters marched into Damascus demanding reforms and release of political prisoners. Football in the country was consequently affected.
As observant as it is may seem, Syria currently is suffering from the rapid multiplying of terrorist organisations (including the regime), mass civilian movement and a global refugee predicament, apart from the collapse of once a key state in the Middle East.
During the early years of the conflict, a 20-year-old footballer named Abdul Baset Al-Sarout became the face of the rebel forces in the city of Homs, a city that was and still is under siege by the Syrian government. The gifted goalkeeper, who last played for previous Syrian league champions Al Karamah SC and represented Syria at the under-17 and under-20 level, decided to forego his promising career to focus on a cause which, to him, carried a lot more significance.
Exchanging his vocals on the pitch for that which would motivate citizens against the regime, Basset was recognised for his patriotic songs calling on people to join the revolution.
With his whereabouts relatively unknown in recent years, Basset, in an interview conducted earlier this year in Turkey, who appears to have relinquished his role in the fight, at least for now, explained how the revolution had shaped up so far claiming a win for the Syrian people. After the revolution, and if he is still alive, Basset aims to return to the football field.
Circumstances have been different for a few other football players.
In February 2013, two mortars exploded in front of a hotel in Damascus as players were getting ready for a match. Nineteen-year-old striker Homs-based Al Wathba club, Youssef Suleiman, a youth international, was killed and many wounded just before a league game against Hama-based Al-Nawair.
Ex-FIFA President Sepp Blatter had expressed his sorrows to the Syrian FA in an open letter over the incident. The budding youngster had represented Al Karamah in the 2008 Asian Champions League. Youssef was also the father of a six-month-old baby.
Horrendously, four players from Raqqa-based Al Shabab Sporting Club – Osama Abu Kuwait, Ihsan Al Shuwaikh, Nehad Al Hussen and Ahmed Ahawakh – endured a gruesome death after being accused of spying for the Kurdish YPG by the so-called terrorist group IS. The four athletes were beheaded in July 2016, on the street with a forced audience.
Jehad Kassab, a legendary player with Al Karamah who, apart from being a four-time league champion; lifted three state cups and represented the club and nation in the finals of the AFC Champions League in 2006, was tortured to death in October 2016. A former Syrian national team member, 40-year-old Jehad was among the most prominent defenders in the nation.
He was accused of participating in riots and was arrested in 2014. However, his name was included among the names in a prisoner exchange process with the regime in the besieged city of Homs. Sadly, it was too late.
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Read | A simple game in a complex world
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There is every reason to suggest that many more athletes within Syria have lost their lives during the conflict years but news not yet reached the media channels. As many as 200 players have left the country to neighbouring Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey to find a way out for themselves and their families.
Jassem al-Nuwaiji is one of them. A professional footballer who once played for Al-Fotuwa Sporting Club in Deir ez-Zor and had stints at clubs in Jordan and Oman, he fled Syria to Turkey in an attempt to revitalise his desire and drive up courage to go back and provide relief to his family, his city and his country. Jassem is longing for the day to come. His story was vibrantly captured in the June edition of ESPN Magazine.
For some of those involved in football, they are hoping their background will eventually reward them, in some capacity, in their newly adopted countries.
Seventeen-year-old Mohammed Jaddou had a bright future ahead of him back in Syria. He was the captain of the under-17 national team and was about to lead his team at the FIFA World Cup in Chile. It all changed with the death of a team-mate, Tarik Gharir, who was killed in a bombing. Referring to him as “an older brother”, the family decided to find a safe haven and joined the millions who moved through borders. Mohammed ended up in Germany where he and his father are currently seeking asylum. In doing so, he missed the opportunity to represent Syria at the under-17 World Cup.
Mohammed, who barely speaks German, is currently in the roster of a fifth division team – Ravensburg in the south of Germany – hoping to earn a contract with a club in the top division. But he will have to wait until his residency status is confirmed.
Fifty-six-year-old Syrian football coach, Osama Abdul Mohsen, stumbled into the limelight after videos of him being tripped by Hungarian journalist Petra Laszlo, while holding his seven-year-old son, circulated globally.
Osama currently is an Arabic football instructor at the CENAFE football academy in Getafe and earns 1,200 euros (around $1,307) a month. The boy he was holding, Zaid, was able to walk into the Santiago Bernabéu, holding the hands of his idol Cristiano Ronaldo, as the father and son were invited to tour the facility in Madrid.
There are several others who have written their own stories and are reasonably unknown, however the predicament is the same. They have all endured a tough journey, overcoming challenges along the way and remaining resilient all throughout.
Back to football – the means by which the Syrians hope to be reunited. The journey for the senior national team in the World Cup qualifying stages has been relatively easy, with the side making it comfortably through to the next rounds of qualification. Syria had finished second behind Asian powerhouse Japan, amassing 18 points in relaxed fashion, winning games against all their opponents except Japan.
Off the pitch, issues travelled with the Qasioun Eagles throughout the campaign. Firstly, for security reasons, the team was not allowed to host any of the qualifiers at home – all the games were hosted in Oman. Secondly, statements by a former head coach in a pre-match conference prior to the 2–1 win in Singapore caused some discomfort among the growing number of Syrian fans who are against the Assad regime.
Fajr Ibrahim, who adorned a t-shirt with the face of Assad on it at the conference, praised the Syrian president: “We are proud because Mr. Bashar is our president. So proud, because this man fights all the terrorist groups in the world; he fights for you also. He is the best man in the world,” said Fajr.
The statement was a stark reminder of how the regime is invested in football. The regime, which is currently on the verge of enduring an international isolation, is searching for a way to break it. Through football, it is attempting to showcase its importance in Syria as the government which is still functioning regardless of the situation with the command centre being Damascus.
FIFA froze funding of approximately $2.25 million last year, as a result of the conflict assuming that the dollars might well be used towards funding political activities of the Ba’ath Party, which not surprisingly controls all sports activities within the nation under the umbrella of a General Sports Authority.
It is also not surprising when the FA focuses the majority of its dollars on government-backed clubs based in Damascus. Through this, as minor as it may seem, the regime wants to spectacle the upper hand on the wider conflict.
Then there is the interesting but curious case of 27-year-old Syrian Omar Al Somah, who has been scoring goals at will in the past few seasons. The lanky striker notched up 53 goals in 48 domestic league games with his club, Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia.
The player last represented Syria in the 2012 WAFF Championships in Kuwait but has refused to respond to any call-ups since then following numerous efforts by the Syrian FA and the plethora of managers who have come by. Current manager Ayman Hakeem is still hopeful and is continuing the efforts to have him join them as they enter the crucial stages of the World Cup qualifiers.
Reasons as to why Omar does not want to be involved includes rumours of him holding on to be granted nationality of Saudi Arabia, which has significant monetary value while providing a safer standard of living.
German football manager, Bernd Walter Stange, had impeccably laid down the attitude of Iraqi players, recalling upon his time with the national team during the pre-match conference against Syria in Singapore: “There was nothing left — not footballs, no equipment. It was very difficult. We couldn’t play any matches in Iraq.
“But the players are very, very motivated to play for their country, to show the people who suffer at home under very difficult circumstances that, we are here, and we want to deliver something. And it was very dangerous to play against Iraq. Even in this difficult time, Iraq had their most successful period.”
Such is the case with Syrians as it stands today. The Qasioun Eagles have nothing to lose and have given it their all on the pitch amidst troubling moments off of it. Having lost to Qatar by a single agonising goal in a World Cup qualifier recently, there is still hope amongst the faithful for the team to make the cut and represent them in Russia.
For now, success on the pitch will be enough to ease the aching of the many on ground, in Syria and abroad. The nation needs the sport more than ever.
By Shuaib Ahmed. Follow @footynions