Syria Fights For Olympic Football Dream

You'd think football is the least of all concerns for Syrians. However tonight the Syrian Under-23 national football team takes to the field in a bid to revive their Olympic hopes.
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You'd think football is the least of all concerns for Syrians. However tonight the Syrian Under-23 national football team takes to the field in a bid to revive their Olympic hopes.

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The Syrian Team

As the political situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, it could be assumed that football is the least of all concerns for Syrians. However tonight the Syrian Under-23 national football team takes to the field on neutral territory in Amman, Jordan. A victory over Malaysia would revive their hopes of qualifying for the London 2012 Olympic Games football tournament.

Sport has not been immune from the events of the past year in Syria. Reports from Syria currently mention football stadiums as the direction from which army troops are advancing rather than hosting football matches at. While the Syrian Premier League was suspended in 2011, matches have resumed, albeit with a large number of postponements. Last month Syrian clubs Al Ittihad and Al Shorta were ordered to play upcoming home matches in the AFC Cup at neutral venues as a result of FIFA's assessment of the security situation in the country.

On the international stage Syria was the only nation of twenty-two Arab countries not to send a team of athletes to the 2011 Pan Arab Games in Doha at protest of the Arab League’s suspension of their membership. Given the turbulence in the country, perhaps it was just as well that Syria were disqualified by FIFA in August 2011 from qualification for the 2014 World Cup after they fielded an ineligible player, George Murad, against Tajikistan.

Reports from Syria mention football stadiums as the direction from which army troops are advancing rather than hosting football matches at.

Furthermore an exodus of Syrian footballers has recently begun. Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have all imported Syrian star players, but it is Iraq that has emerged as the principal beneficiary, perhaps an ironic side effect of the American effort following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein to make the reconstruction of football stadiums and clubs a priority in order to fight militancy.

In the past year, the three top Kurdish clubs in Iraq, Erbil, Zakho and Duhok, have all installed Syrian managers and coaches. Former coach of the Syrian national team, Nizar Mahrous, has been appointed at Erbil. These three clubs have gone on to sign at least seven prominent Syrian national footballers on big contracts, including 91-cap experienced defender Ali Diab, Feras Esmaeel and Nadim Sabagh, as well as young striker Nasouh Al Nakdali, the first of the Under-23 side to make such a move.

It is Nakdali and his teammates in the Syrian Olympic Under-23 side who against all odds have lately been making considerable progress. A stunning 2-1 victory over group favourites Japan in early February, courtesy of a spectacular last-minute strike from Ahmad Al Salih, thrust Syria to the top of their qualification group and arguably installed them as favourites to qualify for the Olympics. This was tempered by a 2-1 defeat to Peter Taylor’s Bahrain, but Syria’s fate remains in their hands.

A routine victory against Malaysia (who have yet to register a point) in the final match of the group would in all likelihood see Syria finish behind Japan and thus qualify for a playoff round, probably featuring Oman and Uzbekistan. Should they come through this challenge, a potential showdown with Senegal awaits in Coventry, venue for the AFC-CAF playoff for a place in the Olympic tournament. The situation is unprecedented given Syria’s previous lack of footballing pedigree, having never qualified for a World Cup or even got past the first round of the AFC Asian Cup.

However the defeat to Bahrain and victory over Japan, also played in Amman due to the domestic unrest, both demonstrated the potential consequences of Syrian qualification for the Games. Although there were no direct clashes, the matches were overshadowed by the politics of the conflict, with many Syrian fans opposed to President Bashar Assad cheering on the opposition or waving Syrian revolution flags, while supporters of the regime chanted, "Long live, Bashar”. Should Syria eventually qualify, it opens up the possibility of demonstrators opposed to the Syrian government and its violent repression descending on the London Olympics to protest against the regime, were the crisis not to be resolved by the summer.

Should Syria qualify, it opens up the possibility of demonstrators opposed to the Syrian government at the Olympics.

The possibility of the Great Britain football team playing against Syria during the Olympics is both intriguing and sure to be immersed in political overtones. The current squad is drawn from all over Syria, from Damascus and Aleppo to Hama and Homs, cities at the sharp end of the current struggles. Both have been subject to army bombardment and fierce crackdowns in recent months.

Aside from the likely protests, the level of attention lavished on this group of young Syrians playing football in the UK at a global event would inevitably be monumental, with their actions and words under intense scrutiny. They have the potential to become the focus for a rallying cry against the Syrian government for opponents of the regime. Will the players present a united front or would political divisions manifest themselves in their performances and words? Would any players defect or speak out against their government with the world media watching and listening? What would the consequences of any resistance be?

On the other hand, a Syrian Olympic football team might represent the manifestation of sport overcoming violence and politics, possessing the ability to become a force for good. Representative as they are of all areas of Syria and its ethnic diversity, they could provide Syria a chance to show that sectarianism can be overcome and stoke a unity overcoming political chaos, violence and division.

There are distinct parallels with Libya, whose football team’s qualification for 2012 African Cup of Nations was set against the backdrop of civil war. Their impressive performance at the tournament presents a powerful example of revolution and unrest conspiring to unite, inspire and embolden a football team. In turn the exploits of the Libyan footballers offered some measure of respite, joy and unity to a beleaguered nation suffering the effects of war.

Thus it may not be simply coincidence that this upturn in performance for the Syrians is happening in the midst of national upheaval. There are indeed similarities with the form of other Arab nations’ football sides since the start of the Arab Spring. With the exception of Egypt, every North African football side (Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Sudan and Morocco) saw their results improve in 2011 since the outbreak of their particular versions of the Arab Spring, compared with the year prior.

Through the power of experiencing seismic events at home, footballers in these countries have shown the ability to work together during tough periods towards a common goal and success. While their country is being torn apart, the Syrian Under-23 team is seemingly fostering a sense of unity and strength through adversity. The results on the field are testament to this.

One player who is highly unlikely to feature is Abdelbasset Saroot, 20-year old goalkeeper for Syria's Under-23 team, but now a leader of the revolution and a marked man on the run from the Syrian authorities in battle-scarred Homs.

Saroot recently told Al Jazeera, "It's worth it. I'm free. I've travelled all over the world to play football. But freedom is not just about me or about travelling. What about everyone else? Freedom is a big word. It's about freedom of speech and freedom of opinion. If you see something wrong being done, freedom is being able to talk about it.”

Having already lost his home, brother and friends, and survived three attempts on his life, his story will doubtless be told during the summer if his Syrian teammates are competing in the Olympics, whether he is alive or not.

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