Despite the brutal war, Syria sees a football resurgence. The world media celebrated the team’s accomplishment as some sort of a charming Cinderella story—look at the team that surprised everyone and became victorious against all odds. Yet there is nothing odd or surprising about this achievement. Here is the real question: Why does a state waging an exhausting and expensive war on multiple fronts allocate generous resources to football?
In Syria, like in many countries in the world, Football is much more than a sport and oftentimes it is affiliated with political parties, state institutions such as the police or army, youth movements and even businesses. Football plays mainly three roles in Syria. On the local level it is used to inject a dose of national pride into the population; the local league helps Assad maintain a façade of a functioning civil order. Internationally, the national team is part of Assad’s sophisticated PR campaign.
Fajr Ibrahim, the coach of the national team, is a big supporter of Assad. At a press conference before last week’s game against Singapore, he wore a t-shirt featuring Bashar Al-Assad portrait. When asked about it he said, “This is our president, we are proud because Mr. Bashar is our president, so proud. Because this man fights all terrorist groups in the world…He is the best man in the world.”
The next day, Ibrahim questioned a pre-match minute of silence for the victims of the Paris terror attack. He said that when Syrians are killed, “no one stand one second.” He understands that part of the national team’s duty is to better the public image of the Syrian president. "All the world fights us”, Ibrahim said on Tuesday in his broken English, “and we will fight all the world at football."
Assad’s government has handsomely funded the most popular sport in the country throughout the war. It is unclear how much Syria invested in football. President of the General Sports Federation in Syria said that almost a third of the country’s athletics budget goes to football, and the remainder of the money is divided between 29 different sports.
Assad's investment has brought returns. Since March 2015, the national team jumped from its worst ever FIFA world ranking of 151, to 117 in July and 132 today; the team made it to the second round of qualifiers for the FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2019 Asian Cup; the Junior National Team qualified for the FIFA Under 17 World Cup in Chile. This Sunday, the Syrian Premier League 2015/2016 season kicked off with four matches. Two of the teams, Al-Jaish and Al-Wahda, have recently advanced to final stages of the Asian Cup Championship.
The Syrian victories in the international levels portrays the country as a functioning secular state, especially in comparison to its neighboring adversary ISIS that executed 13 people in Mosul on January 2015 for watching a football match between Jordan and Iraq.
But a deeper look into Syrian football history during war years reveals a gory picture that the Syrian regime hopes to whitewash with the current triumphs, and perhaps make the population forget that footballers were key leaders in the rebellion against Assad and some of them paid for their bravery with their lives. On March 18th 2011, local football star Mahmoud al-Jawabra marched in a protest against Assad and was killed by the Syrian Security Forces; he became one of the first national symbols of the peaceful resistance to Assad’s regime. In Homs, national youth team goalkeeper Abdul Baset Al-Saroot and player Tarek Intabli led the demonstration against the government chanting anti-regime lyrics to traditional football song rhythm. In late 2014, after both his father and brother were killed by Assad’s regime, Al-Saroot swore alliance to ISIS. Few months later he switched sides for Jabat Al-Nussra and as for now it is unclear if he is still alive. Intabli, on the other hand, is definitely dead. In March 2015, he fought courageously with fellow rebels in Idlib from which he never returned.
When the war escalated Assad forces used sports stadiums as detention camps and military bases, and tortured and killed many famous footballers and athletes across the country.
Today, football players in Syria have three options: join the Syrian army or a militia, become part of Assad’s PR campaign or flee the country. Some of those who left Syria established an opposition national team in Turkey. Istanbul based news agency Daily Sabeh reported in August that the team was allocated a training facility by Turkey, and applied to FIFA with a plea to be recognized as Syria’s official national team, a request that is likely to be ignored or denied.
In the Middle East, football is played in the political arena. Iraq, like Syria, is an unstable and fragmented state fighting wars on multiple fronts. The Iraqi national team, like the Syrian one, is winning. Last Tuesday, when Syria beat Singapore, the Iraqi team overwhelmed China2-0. Iraq, too, uses football to maintainan appearance of a functioning state and to infuse the Iraqi people with nationalistic sentiment even while the state institutions are falling apart. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, used football to send a hostile message to the Palestinian Authority by refusing to play in the West Bank. Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association waged and lost a small war against Israel by appealing to FIFA with a request to suspend Israel’s participation in the international football organization.
Syria’s national team's recent triumphs may bring hope to many Syrians, but this story of football in wartime isn’t only about sports, but about Assad’s ability to retain a remarkable degree of social order in Syria, and a colorful diplomatic arm worldwide.