Out of Syrian ruins a football miracle rises

Average salary: A good Syrian player in the domestic league is paid just $200 (£161) a month.

Their country has been at war since 2011. Millions have fled. Thousands have died. And yet, among the carnage, Syria’s football team may qualify for the World Cup. How is this possible?

At the Ri’ayat al-Shabab stadium in Aleppo, the scars of war are all too clear to see. The stadium is surrounded by bombed out shells of buildings. Matches take place under extremely tight security. But, for fans and players alike, what matters is that they do take place.

The return of club football to Aleppo, shortly after President Bashar al-Assad’s troops defeated rebel forces after a bitter struggle, was a symbol of how everyday pleasures like sport can help return a society to peace and sanity.

And 4,500 miles away in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the Syrian national team stand on the brink of a minor miracle. They play a World Cup qualifier against Uzbekistan today. If they win, they would stand a real chance of qualifying for the World Cup for the very first time, although there are still a lot of hurdles to clear.

Why Malaysia? Economic sanctions and security fears mean no international matches can take place inside Syria. The team, ranked 95th in the world, are forced to play their matches at neutral venues, in front of very low crowds. The lack of viable hosts meant that Syria came within one day of forfeiting their qualifying campaign entirely.

For many Syrians, football is an important unifying and normalising force at a time where their country has become one of the most dangerous places on Earth. One fan from the capital Damascus said: “It is very important to keep hope and to stay optimistic. Live our life in normal way, in sport, in everything. The kids need to live a normal life, they need to watch sport.”

But as well as being a panacea for a nation on its knees, football also presents a propaganda opportunity for Assad. Writing for the BBC, Richard Conway says: “To present a thriving football culture to the world fits in entirely with the agenda of having quelled the rebellion, of stabilisation and control.”

Can sport be a major factor in rehabilitating Syria when its nightmare finally ends — or is that just wishful thinking?

Fighting back

Sport — and especially international sport — has a long history of mending societal wounds, say some. Think of how rugby union brought South Africa together after the end of Apartheid. Syria is wracked by divisions. Its population has been scattered. But its football team stands as a symbol of Syria as one united nation. For the sake of peace, we must all cheer them on today.

Let’s be realistic, reply others. Football in Syria is now being used as a propaganda tool, proving that nothing can ever remain free from politics for long. And stories of sport galvanising a war-torn country make the headlines because they are the exception. Sport does not govern the mood of a country; it is simply a distraction.

You Decide

  1. Can football heal Syria?
  2. Why is sport often used as a propaganda tool?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are Syrian international footballer. Describe how you see your role in bringing your country back together.
  2. Choose a country hit by war in the last 50 years, and write 500 words on how sport was affected.

Some People Say...

“Sport does not unite people; it divides them.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That if Syria win today they will be just one point off third place in their qualifying group. If they finish third, they will be two play-offs away from qualifying for the World Cup for the first time. We know that sporting infrastructure has been devastated by the Syrian civil war.
What do we not know?
Whether they will actually manage to qualify! In Uzbekistan they face a team that has more experience at the top level of Asian football. And we do not know whether Syria’s footballing success story is just a flash in the pan, or whether it can be maintained after the war.
What do people believe?
That sport, and all other hobbies, provide a sense of normality that is invaluable in troubled times. It is also believed that sport can be used to promote unpleasant regimes.

Word Watch

Return of club football to Aleppo
In late January, local rivals Al-Ittihad beat their city rivals Hurriya 2–1 in the first competitive match held in Aleppo for five years. It came after the brutal battle between the regime’s forces, with help from Russia, and rebels, which divided the city between east and west.
Bashar al-Assad
Assad has been president of Syria since 2000. Once seen in the West as a potential reformer, he is now seen by most as a dictator who has committed war crimes against his own people.
Uzbekistan
A country in Central Asia whose football team has twice come within one match of qualifying for the World Cup.
95th
Between Sierra Leone and Bolivia.
Lack of viable hosts
Syria were initially going to play their matches in Macau, dubbed “the Las Vegas of China”. Macau had agreed to pay the Syrians $150,000 per game, tempted by the fact matches would see teams and fans visit, spending money in their hotels and casinos. However, the sanctions Syria operates under meant the money could not be internationally wired, resulting in the deal collapsing.