History, hope, heroes: the story of Syria’s World Cup dream
Bolstered by the return of key players who had previously fled the country, the war-torn nation's football team stands on the cusp of its first appearance on the sport's biggest stage
Syrians of all stripes, stamps and ages are poised with bated breath as the national football team heads into a contest that could, remarkably, see them qualify for the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia.
At 6pm Damascus time, on Tuesday, the team will play against Iran at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. A win will make the World Cup dream of a war-battered nation a reality.
Pro-regime Syrians have – albeit temporarily – cast aside seven years of fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Iranian troops to call for “annihilation” of the Iranian team on Facebook. Meanwhile, domestic political enmities are being dropped for the occasion, as Syrians from both sides of the spectrum rally behind their national team – although some factions of the Syrian Opposition are reluctant to support “the regime’s team.”
Syria have only been this close to playing in the World Cup once before. They very nearly qualified for the Mexico tournament, back in 1986, before a 3-1 defeat to Iraq abruptly killed that ambition. Veteran Syrian sports commentator Adnan Bouzo famously sobbed his heart out – live on air – when covering the match.
On his return to the country, a red carpet was laid out for Khatib at Damascus International Airport, where he was photographed sitting beneath a giant image of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, triggering a backlash from anti-government rebels
Few saw the team’s current trajectory coming, certainly not in the middle of a devastating war that has eaten away at every aspect of public life, sports included. Dozens of athletes, fighting on both sides of the conflict, have been killed on the battlefield, while many others have fled the country as refugees, evading the military draft or the hardships of life in war-torn cities.
Two of those athletes returned to Syria in early August, and many are crediting them with the team’s stunning 3-1 victory over Qatar last Thursday, at the Hang Jebat Stadium in Malaysia.
One is 28-year old Omar Somah, from the city of Deir ez-Zour in Syria’s north-east. Since 2014, he has been playing in Saudi Arabia, where he has helped Al-Ahli to win silverware domestically and scored five times for the club in this year’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League. Prior to that, he helped Al Qadsia of Kuwait win eight trophies over the course of two seasons.
The second notable returnee is Firas al-Khatib, a 34-year-old veteran from the city of Homs who defected to Kuwait in 2012, hoisting the tri-colored flag of the Syrian Opposition as he did so. On his return to the country, however, a red carpet was laid out for him at Damascus International Airport, where he was photographed sitting beneath a giant image of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, triggering a backlash from anti-government rebels.
These two Syrian footballing legends, Somah and Khatib, were key to the win over Qatar, as Syria dominated a Gulf team that was far better trained and better paid than themselves. This influence explains why they are being feted by Syrian officialdom, despite previously-expressed political views. Observers are pinning high hopes on them again ahead of the clash with Iran.
Football has long been a passion in Syria, and has often been entangled in the complex web of regional politics.
The game was introduced to Damascus back in 1919 by a future cabinet minister named Nouri al-Ibish, who had visited London during World War I. He convinced British troops stationed in Damascus to play against locals in the orchards of Mezzeh, not far from the Syrian capital.
Ibish personally coached the Syrian players and surprised everybody by master-minding a Syrian victory that helped to spread the sport’s popularity. Syria’s ruler at the time, Emir Faisal – who would later become king of Iraq – attended the match and rewarded the amateur Syrian athletes with gold watches.
In the late 1980s, football was used to help break Syria’s isolation in the international community, following years of tension with Europe and the US over support for Palestinian militants in their open war against Israel and Damascus’s strong relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In September 1987, then-President Hafez al-Assad opened the 10th Mediterranean Games in the coastal city of Latakia, with 18 countries – including Italy, France, Spain, Turkey, and Egypt – participating. The tournament was the start of a Syrian rebound on the world stage, culminating in Damascus joining the US-backed Gulf War in 1991. During the 1987 Games, Syria’s footballers recorded a memorable 2-1 victory over the country’s former colonial ruler, France.