x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Arms smuggling on the pitch and other tyrannical delusions

If the Syrian regime were not so bloody, you could laugh at its paranoia over – of all things – the footwork of football great Lionel Messi.

Bashar Al Assad does not come across as a very athletic man. More the clumsy, skinny kid who would have been last pick in a school football match. Except that he would have stomped his feet and cried until his daddy made a few calls and his little boy was made captain of one, if not both, of the teams.

The Syrian president certainly does not deserve to share the planet with Lionel Messi, never mind be mentioned in the same sentence. And yet here we are.

Last week, a few days after Messi had become Barcelona's highest-ever scorer with yet another hat-trick against the sacrificial lambs of Granada, the Syrian regime claimed that, through his elaborate dribbles, the Argentine had been sending secret signals to Syrian rebels indicating the best routes for them to smuggle weapons into the country. The match was, after all, broadcast on one of Al Jazeera's sports channels.

Now, most footballers would struggle to tell their Aleppos from their Arsenals, but this is the world's greatest-ever footballer we're talking about here. He could probably re-enact the D-Day landings if he wished to do so.

But there are conspiracy theories, and then there's utter delusion.

Not surprisingly, these "allegations" were laughed off by most sane people, many even believing the broadcast to be a hoax. But nothing is too shameful for this Syrian government. It is indicative of its desperation that it continues to spout such nonsense to its people and the rest of the world. A regime that murders children is hardly going to draw the line at insulting our intelligence.

But Mr Al Assad does have company. This is certainly not the first time that dictatorships have exploited football for propaganda reasons.

England's players, incredibly, were made to give the Nazi salute before a match in Berlin in 1938.

Joseph Stalin, who hated football, was nonetheless convinced by his son Vasily to use it not only as a tool to showcase Soviet sporting prowess, but also to advance political dominance during the Cold War years.

Another daddy's boy, Saddam Hussein's psychopathic son Uday, meanwhile, adopted a far more hands-on approach to running the Iraqi national football team, imprisoning and torturing players when they underperformed.

And when North Korea qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il placed impossible expectations on the team to succeed - in the "group of death" that included Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast. There were even rumours that state television would only broadcast goals scored by the Korean players to the captive audience back home.

In comparison, the Messi conspiracy was, quite simply, not in the same league.

According to the Syrian State-run channel Al Dunya, the ingenious plot was carried out by the three-time World Player of the Year along with teammates Andres Iniesta and Pedro during December's El Clasico encounter with Real Madrid.

"Here we see the first stage where arms are loaded from Lebanon," the Syrian commentator explained without a hint of irony, or indeed shame. "Then they pass through Homs and are delivered to another terrorist in Al Bukamal. We also see how they warn that they will face some obstacles until they reach Deir Ezzor."

Who wouldn't be convinced by such indisputable evidence? Indeed, slow motion footage shows two suspicious looking figures, believed to be Xavi and Cesc Fabregas, also standing on a grassy knoll at the time Messi pulled off his cunning plan.

But why stop there? The overexposed world of professional football is the ideal platform for sending covert political messages.

Was Fernando Torres's refusal to take a shot for five months just affirming his support for non-violent protests? And perhaps Charlie Adam's penalty for Liverpool in the Carling Cup final was a warning against the dangers of nuclear ballistic missiles falling into the wrong hands.

For dictators, football matches could prove gold mines of conspiracy. But then again, what self-respecting tyrant would want to be on the same side as Bashar Al Assad these days?

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @AliKhaled_