19 January 2019
The Syrian national soccer team failed to reach a first-ever World Cup this year, but its perseverance against almost impossible odds is truly inspiring. Photo: Bloomberg
The Syrian national soccer team failed to reach a first-ever World Cup this year, but its perseverance against almost impossible odds is truly inspiring. Photo: Bloomberg

The inspiring story behind Syria’s 2018 World Cup dream

This year’s World Cup is just around the corner, and one thing I find regrettable is that the national soccer team of Syria has failed to make it to the tournament in Russia following its defeat by the Australian team in extra time in a recent playoff qualifier.

The Syrian team was only one step away from gaining a ticket to the quadrennial sporting event. And if it had done so, it would not only have made history but would also have greatly boosted the morale of the war-torn nation.

But in a sense, the Syrian team did already make history: it was the farthest the country has ever managed to advance in any World Cup tournament.

And even though Syria’s hopes of reaching a first-ever World Cup this year were over, the story behind its team’s perseverance against almost impossible odds is still very inspiring in its own right.

It was already a miracle that Syria was able to put together a national team to compete in the World Cup qualifiers in the first place.

Almost all of the country’s sports facilities have been reduced to rubble during the war or seized by rebels and government troops for storing up weapons and ammunition.

Not only was the Syrian team unable to find any place to train for the tournament on its own soil, it was also forced to play its home games in another country.

To make things worse, due to western economic sanctions and limited support from FIFA, the Syrian soccer association (FA) found it hard to find a foreign country where its team could practice and host games.

The Syrian FA approached Macau, but the Macau government backed off from a deal at the last minute out of security concerns.

Eventually, the Syrian FA managed to reach an agreement with the Malaysian government. Kuala Lumpur and FIFA agreed to jointly provide funding and facilities for the entire staff and players of the Syrian national team so that it could practice and play in Malaysia.

But the Syrian team’s woes were far from over.  Many prominent Syrian players boycotted the team thanks to the close relations between the Syrian FA and the Assad regime.

In fact, since the outbreak of the civil war, a lot of Syrian soccer players have fled the country either to escape the war or to protest against President Bashar al-Assad.

Among the renegade players was the captain of the Syrian team and former star striker of China’s Shanghai Greenland Shenhua FC, Firas al-Khatib.

At one point, Khatib publicly rooted for the anti-government rebels and called on his fellow players to boycott the Syrian national team, which he called a “team of shame”.

According to western media reports, a lot of players were actually forced to play for the national team by the Assad regime against their will.

The reports also alleged that some players who sympathized with the rebels, and who were unable to flee the country, have been subjected to inhumane treatment by the Assad government.

However, it is important for readers to note that since both the authenticity and reliability of these one-sided stories run by western media are often open to question, it’s hard to tell whether they are true or “fake news” until after they have been verified.

Yet despite all the boycotts and bad press, the fact that the Syrian national soccer team was able to pull off such a stunning performance at the World Cup qualifiers is definitely phenomenal.

Seven years into the bloody civil war, soccer has become the only solace to the Syrian people regardless of their political and religious beliefs as well as a powerful rallying point for their war-torn nation, according to some Syrian players.

And the brilliant fight put up by the Syrian soccer team against its rivals during the games did, to a considerable extent, help to reunite the country and facilitate national reconciliation.

For example, after it became clear that the Syrian team stood a good chance of making it to the World Cup, players like Khatib began to change their mind and eventually agreed to play for the team.

Khatib himself was even granted a high-profile audience with President Assad, and the pictures of the two taken during their meeting have gone viral among Syrians on the internet.

In my opinion, the achievements and the never-quit spirit of the Syrian team have outshone the Iraqi national team, which, also against enormous odds, dramatically won the Asian Cup in 2007.

That’s because by the time Iraq took part in the tournament, the country had by and large already returned to peace, whereas a war continued to rage in Syria as its national team fought to win on the soccer field.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 12

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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