Callum Farrell reports on how Syrian footballers are attempting to pursue their dreams and uplift spirits while a brutal civil war ravages the country.
The conflict in Syria has engulfed the country in a spiral of violence and destruction, and swamps international politics and news. As claims of chemical warfare circulate and an EU arms embargo is lifted, the situation is sure to escalate and the suffering of Syrians will continue.
The footballing community in the country had their league suspended and top players had to travel abroad for opportunities to play. Strikers Raja Rafe and Firas Al-Khatib joined Iraqi club Zaxo FC and Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua respectively.
Many members of the national team now play abroad and are exposing themselves to higher quality football, being able to develop without the constant disruption that the civil war in Syria brings.
The violence has had the effect of creating an emerging talented squad, plying their trade abroad, who in December last year managed to come together and win the West Asian Football Federation Championship.
They qualified from a group containing Jordan and Iraq, after a 2-1 win and 1-1 draw against their opponents. The Syrians continued through the Championship and sent Bahrain home after a 3-2 victory in the penalty shootout in order to set up a final against Iraq.
The WAFF Championship ended with the Syrians inflicting a 1-0 defeat and Ahmad Al Douni becoming the top goal scorer with 4 (another example of a player who went abroad to play for Al-Riffa in Bahrain).
The Red Eagles are hoping to qualify for the Asian Cup in Australia in 2015 and their captain and goalkeeper Mosab Balhous believes their success can have a profound effect at home.
“Football can help to some degree in restoring people’s spirits and social cohesion especially between the members of the team itself”.
“Despite the situation, we have brushed off our personal suffering and achieved some excellent recent results. This has raised our morale and given great joy to all Syrians”.
The Syrian FA was active members before the outbreak of war in 2011 and was regularly enrolled in courses involving men and women’s football, refereeing and futsal. Construction of a new pitch in Damascus was underway but because of the situation it has now had to be postponed.
Violence and isolation has regularly shown to be no opponent to football and the game has prospered in even the direst situations.
Iraq has shown how football can succeed under huge pressure and violence. The national team became a symbol of unity for the country and through their success they enabled communities of any religion or region to support the squad.
In Professor Chuck Korr’s book, “More Than Just A Game”, he details how football managed to grow through the efforts of prisoners of Robben Island during the apartheid era.
Despite their days of hard labour they set up a football league, referees association, FA and adhered to all FIFA rules. The prison contained a huge array of political beliefs and backgrounds but the inmates came together because of their love for football.
There is no suggestion that football is the answer to ending the conflict, or that the violence in Syria is worth national team success, but by continuing to pursue international football the Syrian squad are providing a unifying force for a society in desperate need for some cohesion.
image: © syriafreedom