James M. Dorsey
Last updated: 12 October, 2015

The controversy of Syrian football: succeeding against the odds

Despite civil war, Syria’s tightly-controlled national team remains on course to qualify for its first ever World Cup.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s political fortunes are looking up on more than one battlefield. Even as Russian military intervention appears to have given Assad’s government a new lease on life, sending its football team out to play World Cup qualifying matches allows it to project an image of normality despite four years of bloody civil war.

Syria may have suffered a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Japan on Thursday, but it still stands a chance to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2019 Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates. Despite having never previously qualified for the World Cup finals and being placed at number 173 on FIFA’s world rankings, Syria is closer than ever to reaching the tournament at a moment when the country is rent by a conflict that has claimed more than 200,000 lives and forced millions to flee their homes.

That’s a remarkable feat for a tightly-controlled team that many Syrians believe represents the government rather than a nation effectively split into fiefdoms. Indeed, some of the national team’s players have joined the revolt against Assad, while others have fled the country. Some on the squad are believed to be still playing because they felt they had no choice. There’s no doubt that some of the national team’s players are happy to play and support Assad; it’s just not clear how many.

Whatever their true feelings, however, Syrian players have no choice but to ensure that their public statements don’t cross the Assad government. “We come from all aspects of Syria. Whether you are a Christian or a Muslim or any sector of Islam we’re all one family, we’re playing for one team, one country,” team captain Abdulrazak Al Husein told The Guardian in advance of the match against Japan.

Al Husein’s professed optimism puts a brave face on a bad situation. “At the end of the day, we’re playing for the country, hoping it will get back to the way it was. The best thing we can do is unite the people of Syria,” Al Husain said.

Continue to read on Al Jazeera America