Syria Found True Joy: The Hope Football Bring to A War Ravaged Country

The country’s civil war has claimed more than 300,000 lives and forced four million into the exile of refugee camps in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Such is the backdrop to the most extraordinary of all the World Cup play-off ties: Syria’s journey to the brink of qualification. Beat Australia over two legs, and Syria will have one final qualifier — possibly against the USA, of all countries — to earn a place in Russia.

Incongruous though it seems amid the current disintegration of the country, the roots of this success lie in Syria’s enlightened push to develop young talent, more than 10 years ago.

The Syrian FA ended the domestic monopoly of the army team Al-Jaish, who dominated because compulsory conscription meant they recruited the best players. The nation began investing in scouting and training. Their youth teams flourished. Al-Karamah, in the now rebel-held city of Homs, reached the last four and last eight of the Asian Champions League for three successive years, from 2006.

The war meant there was not even a Syrian domestic league for several years and key players refused to play for a national side representing a regime which has been accused of waging repeated chemical attacks on civilians and the mass bombing of Homs, where the Arab Spring revolt took hold in 2011.

However the side have progressed under the management of Ayman Hakeem, an emotional 57-year-old Syrian who wept at his press conference after the decisive 2-2 draw in Tehran against Carlos Queiroz’s Iran. The imperious Iranians booked their ticket to Russia three months ago.

As the side progressed deep into the qualification stages, the charismatic Hakeem has persuaded several of a golden generation developed in the past decade to put their abhorrence of Assad to one side and return to the international fold.

They include veteran striker Firas al-Khatib, whose young cousin was killed in an attack on Homs, and Omar al-Somah, Syria’s most celebrated footballer due to his goal-scoring exploits with Saudi club Al Ahli - but this is by no means the fairy tale it seems.

Assad’s regime is providing the team’s finances and seeking a propaganda coup. In the early stages of qualification, some of the team’s players wore shirts featuring an image of Assad at a pre-match press conference. Making it to Russia would create the impression of normality and order in his country. It would also give a headache to FIFA, who vehemently oppose political interference in football.

When the BBC journalists Richard Conway and David Lockwood investigated the side’s success for their the documentary ‘Syria: Football on the Frontline’, Assad’s officials discouraged them from covering two car-bomb attacks, a short distance from where Hakeem’s players were training. The pair did so anyway. A total of 40 people, many of them Shia pilgrims visiting from Iraq, were killed.

The film captured the huge image of Assad, pitch-side at one training session. His government funds the team via the Syrian Football Association, an arm of government. Though the players’ wages are minimal - £55 a month - the side could not afford travel or hotels without the country’s FA. General Mowaffak Joumaa, the most powerful sports official in Syria, has attended qualification matches. He was denied a visa for the London 2012 Olympic Games, because of his links to Assad.

For many of the best Syrian talents, the war has brought obscurity, rather than a place on this international stage. Helal al-Baarini was a key member of the Under 19 side and played for Al-Karamah as a 17-year-old, but his family were forced to flee the bombing in Homs and, after four years as refugees in Jordan, ultimately found refuge in Birmingham.

A player seen as one of many great talents lost to the war is now plying his trade for Bilston Town in the Premier Division of the West Midlands League. He initially joined Third Division club Continental Star FC.

‘There was a lot of excitement when we were coming through the system together,’ Al Baarini told The Mail on Sunday. ‘A lot of the players unfortunately lost their lives during the war and a lot of players gave up playing football because of the war. At least 15 of my closest friends left football. If the war had not happened it could’ve been a great opportunity for me to be part of the team and get myself on the map.’

His team-mates included Abdelbasset Sarout - a target for Assad’s regime who survived several assassination attempts after joining the uprising.

Working with the Ballers Sports Management agency, Al Baarini said he had been invited to a trial with Birmingham City a few months ago, assisted by a caseworker at Birmingham City Council, which has helped the family and others to settle. That has come to nothing.

Some of those in exile feel that Hakeem’s players should not attach themselves to a symbol of the regime. One refugee, Nihad Saadeddine, has established a ‘Free Syria’ team drawn from those in exile in Turkey and Germany. Saadeddine has been uncompromising about players who have returned to the fold.

He said recently that Al Khatib should be ‘condemned to the garbage bin of history’ with those who support the Assad regime. But amid the build-up to Thursday’s ‘home’ leg — to be played 5,000 miles away in Malaysia because Damascus is not deemed safe — there are few in the country who don’t want to see Syria win.

Al Baarini will look out for the players he served his football apprenticeship with in this national side and sees his besieged compatriots back at home as the beneficiaries of another win. Striker Al Khatib seems to feel the same. ‘The people could do with some kind of enjoyment and happiness,’ he said.

‘The reason why I have come back into the team is very complicated but I can’t talk more about these things. Better for me, better for my country, better for my family, better for everybody if I not talk about that, but if we can win and go the finals it will lift the people. The people deserve that.’

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