Wed 14 Jun 2017, 08:00
By Richard Conway and David Lockwood.
Ultimately, this is the story of 23 Syrian footballers, 23 million Syrian people, 11 million refugees, an estimated 0.4 million deaths after six years of bloody civil war, and one embattled president. You can’t speak of daily life in Syria without looking at the impact the past six years of war has had - and sport is no different.
Since the uprising began in 2011, there has been little positivity spoken in connection with the country, but then there is the remarkable story of Syria's national football team.
The relationship that exists between this national team and its people depicts the power of sport on a personal, cultural and political level.
Our assignment, to trace their story for BBC Our World – Syria: Football on the Frontline, was like no other and took us to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and finally Malaysia.
At 4 500 miles [7 242km] away from their home country, we met Syria’s national football team in the lobby of a five-star Malaysian hotel south of Kuala Lumpur. The footballing world has recently started to pay attention to the Syrian team following their draw against the World Cup semi-finalists, South Korea, in September 2016. Even more so following their victory in a World Cup 2018 qualifier in October when this side, representing a war-torn nation, beat China - a country of 1.4bn that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its president’s plan for footballing success. When we met them they were gearing up to play Uzbekistan in arguably the most important game in their nation’s football history, a game that would make reaching the play-offs for a place at the World Cup in Russia next year a real possibility, and a game which they went on to win.
But it’s the conditions they play under which make their achievements all the more incredible.
There is no ignoring the control that President Bashar Assad’s regime tries to exert over its citizens and, once again, sport is no different. The success of the team is both a passing panacea and a propaganda opportunity, the former for the people and the latter for the president. To present a thriving football culture to the world fits in entirely with the agenda of normalisation, of having quelled the rebellion, of stabilisation and control.
Yet it is the politics of war that has led to 11m people being uprooted from their homes over the past six years. Many have found sanctuary with family or friends inside Syria or in refugee camps such as Za’atari in Jordan.
Others meanwhile, in search of a new life far from Syria, have washed ashore in flimsy vessels on the beaches of southern Europe. Those fortunate enough to still be breathing have faced perilous onward journeys within a continent increasingly fractured over its attitude towards their plight.
The one common thread between Syrians, no matter if they are regime supporters or part of the opposition, is a love of their country. That even extends to those we spoke to during filming, who have lost family members or were forced to flee their homes in order to survive. One star player who previously expressed negative opinions about the regime and was banned is returning to the national team.
Firas al Khatib, considered one of his country’s greatest ever players, declared support for the Syrian opposition in 2012 and hasn’t featured for the team since.
Now, following overtures from the head coach, he is returning and ready to play his part in trying to take Syria forward.
So a good news story around potential qualification for the World Cup is both a welcome distraction from the grind of wartime life and a way for Syrian patriotism to be expressed, other than down the barrel of a gun.
The Toughest Jobs in Football
Economic sanctions and security fears mean that no national team games can take place inside Syria and the team are forced to play their home fixtures at neutral venues abroad, in front of very few fans. That is easier said than done when you are a state with very few friends on the global stage. While in Damascus, we met with Kouteibah Al Refai, the secretary general of his country’s football federation. Refai is responsible for organising the team’s friendly fixtures and arguably has the most difficult job in world football.
When we met Refai he was pacing around his office at the Syrian FA headquarters, cigarette hanging from his lip, and he listed the excuses he’s been given and the tiny pool of teams who will take them on.
“All of the countries we’ve contacted could not meet the dates we’ve got available.
“Iraq did offer us a friendly in Tehran but the dates didn’t work for us. This is the problem we are suffering these years,” he says.
Finding a venue to play World Cup qualifying games was a similarly tough task given Syria’s inability to host teams because of security fears.
The Malaysian FA finally agreed, at the last minute, after a deal with Macau, a tiny territory known as the “Vegas of China”, fell through.
The squad tasked with making miracles are well aware of the wider responsibilities on their shoulders. At just 22 years old, Omar al Midani has more to worry about than just leading Syria’s defensive line.
The centre-half, who plays for the Damascus club Al Wahda, has featured 17 times for his country, scoring once. A tall, powerful player, his presence in Syria’s back line is a key factor in their recent success.
National players across the world often complain that the weight of expectation on their shoulders from the public to win can be too much at times.
In Syria, the situation is reversed. The players have taken on the task themselves of providing some respite from the war to their compatriots.
“Despite all the pain they are living in, the people believe in us and are supporting us all time,” says Midani.
“The minimum we can do is to give them joy for a few hours, we ask God to help us to do that.”
Most players his age don’t have such things to occupy their minds. Omar has ambitions to play abroad and develop his career but as we watched Al Wahda’s youth team train he emphasised that such personal motivations are secondary while the war continues.
“The football was much better before the war. We were happy, the only thing we cared about was football and school. Now the only thing we care about is to have our country back like it used to be.”
That day may be some way off. In the meantime, all Refai, Khatib and Midani can do is keep planning and playing.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, the excitement from this football adventure has given the Syrian government, which funds the team, a PR boost. Some Syrians, opposed to the Assad regime, refuse to support their national team - but for many others the team provides some much needed hope, escapism and pride.
In the end, World Cup qualification may well prove elusive but the achievements of this Syrian squad will be lauded given what they have had to overcome.
Written by Richard Conway and David Lockwood