by Rosie Alfatlawi
Syria’s Tuesday night draw against neighbors Iran in qualifying for World Cup 2018 drew international attention.
It seems like a fairytale story: a nation in its seventh year of civil war has reached the play-off for their first ever football World Cup qualification.
But the match raised the question: Can you support a team representing your country, when your state is at war with you?
There were those who put aside the bloody conflict to get behind their team.
An AFP report prior to the match claimed: “Road to Russia football fever unites war-divided Syrians”.
The article claimed that “for residents of rebel-held areas of Syria as well as those under government control [...] triumph in Tehran would bring a welcome respite from a brutal conflict”.
It quoted supporters of opposition rebels as tentatively offering support to a victory for Syria - although not, of course, for Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
“This team is not Assad's team, it's Syria's team,” one individual in a rebel-held area told the news agency.
Online there was plenty of enthusiasm for the national team among accounts plastered with support for the Syrian army.
May God be with you today and grant you success. Our hearts are with you #Russia18 #Yes_we_can #We_are_all_the_national_team #support_Syria #Syria_Iran
Elsewhere, however, it was a different story.
On Sunday, Badra Mohammed wrote in an angry Facebook post which received 409 likes: “We wish for victory for this team, but does it really still represent us?!”
The photojournalist from Douma, which has been under government siege since 2013, said that he wished he could attend the match but was prevented by “[refugee] camp checkpoints”.
“Syrians here wish to watch the match, and to support the team that bears the image of their murderer on their shirts!”
But, he claimed, the government “cut off electricity and all forms of communication about four years ago.”
Playing on the bitter irony, Mohammed said that “sport has nothing to do with politics, or even humanity”, while listing sports people he claimed had “died under torture”.
“The death of Syrians,” he sadly concluded “is a normal political matter”.
UK-based George Ain wrote on Facebook: “There is a big debate on Facebook over whether to support the Syrian team or not, and whether to consider the team one representing the nation or the national leadership.”
“For as long as it has existed, sport, like everything else in Syria, has been intricately linked to politics, the ruling party, regional leadership and even the army.”
“Members of the sports leadership in Syria (the Sports Union) are appointed by the regional leadership of the Baath party. The official in charge of sport in Syria is a general in the army...”
“The team coach used to turn pre-match press conferences into Baath party conferences,” Ain added.
He described how players had been dropped from the team for holding opposing political views, only to be returned when results suffered, but only after they renounced those opinions.
Among them, star striker Firas al-Khatib, who returned to the team after an absence of a few years due to joining the opposition in 2011. Despite previously ruling out playing again for the national team, a change of tone in January saw him say that if asked to return to the squad he would "accept naturally because it would be an honour for a sportsman to represent his country and his team".
“For this reason,” Ain continued “many people in Syria hate sport and consider it purely a divisive political entity, rather than a sporting entity that brings people together”.
“Whoever considers the points and problems raised above something ordinary, he is tricking himself and is the biggest enemy to Syrian sport. Because, if not for these problems, our sport would have reached international level years ago.”
All this being said, however, he criticized those who call the players traitors while displaying the flag of the team Syria is playing against. BBC Arabic reported, for instance, that some opposition supporters had backed Qatar in their recent match against Syria.
Elsewhere on social media, some Syrians questioned whether their pro-regime countrymen would be backing Iran, al-Assad’s close ally. Tehran is thought to spend billions annually in support of the Syrian regime.
Syria's national team: a tool of the regime?
As Ain points out, sport in Syria is closely linked to the regime: Al-Assad’s wife and son both sent out good luck messages encouraging support for the team via Instagram and Youtube respectively.
In a clip, Hafez Bashar al-Assad said: "Guys, we wish you victory. Just getting to this point is really important and great."
Asma al-Assad, meanwhile, captioned a picture of a young girl in a Syria strip with “we are all with you”.
If the government is attempting to exploit excitement over the potential qualification for political then it might well be barking up the right tree. Despite the reservations of many opposition members, a certain degree of World Cup fever does seem to be taking over the embattled nation.
The following are images of supporters in regime-held areas watching last night’s match.
This post even claimed to show opposition and regime-supporting fans watching the match together in Egypt, although it is not clear whether that is an accurate description.
It remains debatable as to whether victory against Australia and a further play off opponent, which would put them into the World Cup finals, would be a victory for Syria or for its regime.
What is clear, however, that Syria’s long and bloody civil war continues to trundle on, and qualifying for a football tournament would be little more than a band-aid over the gaping wound of Syrian suffering.
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