“Like the country itself, feelings about Syria’s national football team, who play Australia tonight, are complex.
When the Syrian national football team walks onto the pitch in Sydney tonight , Obay Al-Akul won’t be inside the stadium cheering but outside protesting.
He won’t be alone. A Syrian national who grew up in Damascus before arriving in Australia in 2014, Al-Akul is one of the 5.1 million people who have fled Syria’s civil war as refugees.
For many, the national side’s unlikely progression to the playoffs for 2018 World Cup qualification is less a fairytale and more a continuation of the nightmare that has seen more than 400,000 people killed since the Syrian uprising began in 2011.
“How can I support this team when so many civilians have been killed in Syria,” Al-Akul said on Tuesday. “How can I when too many athletes have been arrested and some of them killed by the regime because they supported the Syrian revolution.”
But like the country itself, feelings about the Syrian national team – who could end the Socceroos’ World Cup qualification hopes tonight – are complex and divided.
The result seemed so unlikely for a team ranked 75th in the world from a country ravaged by civil war, that many, like George Salloum from Granville in Sydney’s west, saw it as a rare reprieve from all the “bad news” the country his family migrated from faces.
Salloum was born in Australia, but many of his family still live in Zweitina, a Greek Orthodox Christian village near Homs in the country’s west.
“It’s good for Syria – with what’s happening there you’d think there would be no soccer team,” he said.
“People think the whole country is in ruins, but it’s showing the world we’re still up there and thriving. The country is still up and running, and people are so proud of Syria.”
But is Syria an example of triumph over adversity, or a cynical propaganda display from a despot?
After the Iran match, in an eerie demonstration of the cult of personality that surrounds the Assad regime, the players assembled on Syrian television to praise the dictator.
Among them were Firas al-Khatib and Omar al Somah, two players who before the Iran match had not played for Syria since 2012 in a boycott of the regime.
“First, we thank president Bashar al-Assad for honouring all the players,” al-Khatib said in a broadcast translated to English on Youtube. Al Somah mimicked him: “I thank president Bashar al-Assad for his support of sports and athletes,” he said.
Anas Ammo, a Syrian sports writer who has lived in Turkey for the past five years after fleeing the civil war, said the staged press conference was a display of how the national side has been co-opted by Assad.
“All the people in Syria love football, and six years ago we would be celebrating,” he said. “But this team – this is not a football team – this is a political team. This is a dictator’s team.”
Ammos, who says he’ll be supporting Australia, said the reasons for the player’s support for the national team were also varied and complex.
Some genuinely support Assad, while he believed others, such as al-Khatib, faced political pressure.
“Whatever happens, 12 million Syrians will love me,” he told Fainaru. “Another 12 million will want to kill me.”
Like many, al-Akul, who now lives in western Sydney, believes Assad is using the national team to project an image of normality to the international community.
“He didn’t care about football or sport before this – in Syria we had bad teams, bad funding, now all of a sudden he supports all of that?” he said.
“He wants the propaganda to show the world ‘look, after seven years of war we don’t care, we go to the World Cup qualifier’.”
It’s certainly true that the regime’s support for its athletes is newly found. Ammos believes at least 13 league football players are missing or in government detention. Almost 50 have been killed by government forces. And many have come up against the regime since the 2011 uprisings.
This week the website of the Asian Football Confederation published an interview with Syria’s most capped player, goalkeeper Mosab Balhous, on the country’s unexpected success.
Balhous, 34 and now based in Omar as a coach for Dhofar, predicted the team would beat Australia on the back of the “spirit, desire and determination of the players”.
He also expressed regret that he wouldn’t be there, telling the website that it was “an honour for any player to represent his country”.
What it didn’t mention was that Balhous was arrested by government forces in 2011 on charges of supporting opposition movements and sheltering rebel fighters, and vanished for a year before suddenly rejoining the national squad in 2012.
Jihad Qassab, a former Syria captain who led his club al-Karama to the 2006 Asian Champions League final, died inside Saidnaya military prison in Damascus in late 2016 after being accused by authorities of making car bombs, an allegation he denied.
A second person named George Salloum, this one from Avondale Heights in Melbourne’s north-west, has been watching Syria’s matches on television.
Salloum moved to Australia from Syria 45 years ago as a 19-year-old. Usually he’d be supporting Australia, but he says the sentimental pull of Syria is too great.
“I should be supporting Australia because I have been here all my life [but] it’s human nature, you always have a soft place in your heart for the place that you’re from,” he said. “Plus, Syria are the underdogs.”
But, Salloum said, he understood why many didn’t feel able to support Syria.
“What has happened is a catastrophe in any way you want to measure it, cities and villages have been destroyed and people have been killed on both sides,” he said.
“The hatred and division is so profound it will take generations and generations to heal it.
“I don’t have any grudge against anybody.””
[This article was originally published by The Guardian.]