Syrian footballers in a moral quagmire as war-torn society collapses all around them
It's commonplace for a sports star to observe that the death of a friend or family member, or some grave personal problem, 'puts things into perspective'. But what must it be like when it's the society you've known all your life which seems to be mortally ill?
What must it be like, in other words, to be one of the Syrian football team? Five years of war have left over 400,000 dead and created almost five million refugees. Over one in ten Syrians have been killed or wounded in the conflict. The country has suffered a descent into Hell.
Yet the national football team continues to play. And not just play but play well. Ranked 26th in Asia when qualifying for the World Cup began, they are one of just 12 teams that have made it to the third qualifying round. By doing so Syria have qualified for the finals of the Asian Cup for only the third time since 1992 and currently lie fourth out of six teams in group A, having scored a shock win over China and held South Korea to a draw. On Tuesday they have a home match against group leaders Iran.
'Home' in this case means the Tuanku Abdel Rahman Memorial Stadium in Seremban, Malaysia, 4,500 miles away. It is a long time since Syria played an actual home game. Though, extraordinarily, a domestic Premier League has, after being cancelled when the civil war began in 2011, continued throughout the conflict, with all the games being played in the government-controlled cities of Damascus and Latakia.
It seems almost obscene to write about football in the context of Syria yet presumably fans of Damascus giants Al-Jaish have celebrated their team's recent back-to-back titles. And presumably there will be Syrian football supporters who will be monitoring Tuesday's game with bated breath and who rejoiced when the country won its first major honour by defeating Iraq 1-0 in the final of the West Asian Championship four years ago.
The Iraqis too know what it's like to carry on playing while war wages. In 2007 they won the Asian Cup for the first time. That year over 30,000 people died in the country's various conflicts, a statistic so awful that any attempt to pretend their historic win in some way mitigated the national pain seems impossibly naive. Yet on they played, as the Syrians are playing on now. You wonder how players can manage it.
The first instinct in a case like this for the neutral is to cheer on the plucky underdogs. Yet the situation is complicated. It has been suggested that the team is being used by the Assad regime to show that some degree of normal life is still going on in the country. The dictator himself gave each player on that successful West Asian games team a flat, a cash bonus and a government job when they returned home.
Star player Firas Al Khatib has refused to play for the national side; other players have joined the rebel forces, with former under 20 international goalkeeper Abdelbasset Saroot becoming one of the figureheads of the revolution against Assad's rule; former under 16 national team captain Mohammed Jaddou almost drowned on a five-day journey on an overcrowded boat to Italy, his best friend and former team-mate Tarek Ghrair was killed by a bomb in the city of Homs. Even the current national captain Mosab Balhous had to endure being jailed by the regime for "sheltering armed gangs and possessing suspicious amounts of money".
The footballers are to a large extent in an impossible position. Jaddou's flight was prompted by the fact that players who appear for the national team are threatened by the rebels and players who refuse to do so face punishment by the regime. There is even a Free Syria team, located in Lebanon, which vows to replace the current national side if Assad is overthrown. The whole tangle is perhaps best encapsulated by supporter Kenan Rahmani who observed: "Any Syrian is going to be happy that there is a Syrian team that is competing on the world stage. But it is a team that is run by the same government that is killing its own citizens."
There will be no happy ending to this story, no handy moral about the redemptive power of football. Having things put into perspective is not always an uplifting experience. But young Mohammed Jaddou, rescued from the Mediterranean by the Italian Navy, has had trials with Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen while he struggles with life as a refugee in Germany. You'd hope things work out for him at least.
Sunday Indo Sport