On Thursday, Syria face Uzbekistan in Tashkent, as the third and final round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup begins.
For a nation cursed with war, it is a remarkable achievement for Syria to have reached this stage. Now the Qasioun Eagle have a historic opportunity to go further.
Syria have never made it to the finals of a World Cup. Reaching this stage represents the closest the Middle Eastern side have come to qualifying for the competition in 30 years.
Of the five teams in Group A, Syria are ranked the lowest by FIFA. As well as Uzbekistan, the group also includes China, Iran, South Korean and Qatar.
In Iran and South Korea, Syria face two of Asia’s powerhouses who are clear favourites to finish in the two automatic qualifying spots; though, for Syria, none of the games will be easy. A third place finish would result in a further play-off round.
In the second round of qualifying the Qasioun Eagles lost only twice, and both defeats came against Japan. Big wins over Cambodia and Afghanistan, as well as two narrow victories against Singapore, secured second spot.
They progressed as one of the four best runners-up, in the process securing a spot at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
Syria’s strong performance in second qualifying round did not come out of the blue. In 2011, after finishing on top of a qualifying group which included China, Syria appeared at the Asian Cup finals after a 15 year absence.
And then, in 2012, they won the West Asian Championships for the first time in their history, defeating Iraq 1-0 in the final.
What is surprising though is that this upswing in performance should coincide with the lowest, darkest time in the country’s history.
That victory over Iraq came one year into the brutal, complex war in Syria. Four years on, the situation is only worse.
Hundreds of thousands have died; seven million are internally displaced. Four million more have fled to refugee camps throughout the Middle East, or sought dangerous passage to Europe.
While the Syrians’ journey thus far in the World Cup qualifiers is a remarkable story, it is but a thin veil hiding a darker narrative. The beautiful game can do little to distract from such a brutal, devastating war.
Football in Syria has not only been disfigured by the war, but become part of it, too.
In 2011, 19-year-old Abdul Basset al-Sarout, Syria’s youth team goalkeeper, became a symbol of the uprising in Homs, where he led anti-government protests in the city with chants and songs. Later, he took up arms against the government.
That same year, the government arrested Mosab Balhous, the national team’s goalkeeper, for sheltering rebels and supporting opposition forces. Imprisoned for a year, he was later restored to the national team.
Then, in 2012, Firas al-Khatib, one of the finest players Syria has produced, retired from international football for political reasons.
He refused to play for the national team that represented the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who stands accused of using chemicals weapons and napalm, as well as indiscriminately bombing built-up civilian areas.
If there was any ambiguity about the politics of the Syrian national team, it was made clear last November.
At a press conference ahead of Syria’s World Cup qualifying match against Singapore, Fajr Ibrahim, Syria’s then head coach, and midfielder Osama Omari, wore matching white t-shirts imprinted with an image of a smiling President Assad.
When asked about the t-shirts, Ibrahim answered:
This is our president, we are proud Mr Bashar is our president…because this man fights all terrorist groups in the world, he fights for you also. He is the best man in the world.
Even if a Syrian footballer has no politics, to wear the red of the Syrian national team is in effect to take sides. Mohammed Jaddou captained Syria at the 2014 under-16 AFC Championships in Thailand, and suffered hostility on two fronts.
Now living in Germany, Jaddou told World Soccer anti-government rebels accused him of loyalty to the Assad regime after playing for his country; while the government pressured him to continue playing for the national team.
The government use to threaten to end my career and punish me if I didn’t show up for a training camp. They also threatened to call me a deserter if I ever left the team.
James M. Dorsey, the author of The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer, says that by “sending its soccer team out to play World Cup qualifying matches” the Syrian government aims to “project an image of normality.”
For the same ends, the Syrian Premier League continues in government-controlled Damascus. But the dreadful reality of football in Syria became clear in 2013.
As Al-Wathba forward Youssef Sleman and his teammates made their way to training near Tishreen sport stadium a mortar shell landed. A number of players were wounded. Sleman died from shrapnel injuries to his neck.
On September 6th, Syria play their first home game of the World Cup qualifying group against South Korean. The match is to take place in Macau, on the border with China.
The rest of Syria’s home games will be played in Beirut, Lebanon. Any goals they score in these games, any success the national team enjoy on the pitch, will echo silently in empty stadiums.
Syria has a historic opportunity to reach her first World Cup finals, but it is not a football fairy tale.