After nearly two years of war, fate smiled on Syria for a brief moment on Thursday as its national football team scored a historic 1-0 victory in the West Asia Cup.
Twenty-one months into a conflict that has killed more than 44,000 people, Syria’s national team lined up against Iraq in Kuwait, and in the 73rd minute Ahmed Saleh scored the winning goal.
Syrian state television interrupted programming to announce the team’s victory in a competition held every two years since the year 2000 and also showed the awards ceremony in Kuwait live.
“Congratulations to all Syria! Our national men’s football team has won the Western Asian football cup in Kuwait, after defeating the Iraqi team in the final,” said the football federation’s official website.
But joy at the victory was overshadowed by politics.
“Even football has not escaped the bloodthirsty media, who tried to ruin the joy of our people after the victory by broadcasting false information about a general power cut in Damascus, and about clashes,” state television said.
Pan-Arab channels had broadcast news of a power cut in the Syrian capital.
“The team’s victory has nothing to do either with the president or with the rebels,” said one Facebook page titled “Shu Ismo” (“What is his name?”)
“It is thanks to the 11 players who played and won this victory for all the country. All the players are Syrian. Some are pro-regime, some are anti-regime, and some are neutral,” said the page, which carries satire.
Activists in besieged, rebel-held districts in the central city of Homs had little to celebrate, said another Facebook user, Abu Bilal.
“Goaaaal for the Syrian regime’s team,” he wrote.
After the final whistle, the army “intensified” its shelling of rebel-held districts, Abu Bilal later told AFP via the Internet.
“They rained down bombs on Old Homs.”
The conflict in Syria has pushed some 50 professional footballers into exile in neighbouring countries.
Cash-strapped clubs have had little choice but to sell some of their best players to other countries.
Syrian coaches have also fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Oman.
The violence has emptied Syrian stadiums, despite a widespread love for the world’s favourite game.
The 2010/2011 championship was scrapped and replaced with a mini-tournament between the four top teams.
Two then dropped out, and the final match ironically pitted the army and police against each other. The police won.