Syrian supporters 'are here to watch the football' at the Asian Under 19 Championship and leave the politics behind, writes Ali Khaled
Fans display a united effort
Youth tournaments are usually played to the backdrop of empty stadiums and little widespread interest. But very often they provide a golden glimpse into the future. The 2003 Fifa World Youth Championship in the UAE, for example, showcased the embryonic careers of Andres Iniesta, the Barcelona midfielder, and Al Wahda's Ismail Matar.
And occasionally, these tournaments provide heartwarming, underdog tales. The success of the Syrian team, and their remarkable support, has been the highlight of the Asian Under 19 Championship currently being held in the northern emirates.
On Thursday, Fujairah Stadium was packed with around 6,000 fans for the match between Syria and Qatar - an attendance most Pro League matches here would struggle to match.
Several hundred late comers were locked out. The Syrian crowd was a real mixture - grandmothers and young children, married couples and teenagers, male and female.
Large banners dotted the crowd along with hundreds of small plastic flags.
A drum sounded throughout, as did air horns. "Soo-ri-ya, Soo-ri-ya" rang around the stadium.
A 2-1 loss did not stop their team claiming a place in the quarter-finals.
It is impossible to view this Syrian team, and their followers, independently from events taking place in their country that is a consumed by civil war. The crowd, well-behaved throughout, still veered from hostile to celebratory.
Qatari touches were roundly booed and every Syrian attack wildly cheered. There was also a chant of "with our soul, our blood, we support you Bashar", directed by a section of the crowd at the team and fans of Qatar, a country that has strongly supported the Syrian rebel opposition.
Conversely, a group of fans jointly held flags of Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, a nod to that support. Separating sport and politics remains more a bureaucratic dream than reality. Still, it is a sign of how complex, and sensitive, the political situation is in Syria that most fans, to their credit considering the setting, remained non-committal to where their loyalties lie. "We are here to watch the football and support the team, not talk politics," one fan said, echoing the thought of many others.
Despite the sporadic partisan chants, and reports of vitriolic exchanges on Twitter, the majority of fans focused their energies on supporting the young team rather than political point-scoring.
What message translated to the players on the pitch is unclear. Mohammed Jouma, the Syria coach, believes that the pressure got to some of the players.
"Our main target was to win of course and to top the group, but I think this time the tense atmosphere had a negative effect," he said yesterday.
To their credit, the Syrians showed commendable skill and passion throughout a difficult match, which saw them have a man sent off.
"We are still proud of our team and their efforts," one fan said. "We may not have the resources of other teams, but we have the spirit."
It is a spirit that they will once again need to conjure up tonight against Uzbekistan, who topped Group C after beating Vietnam and South Korea, and earning a draw with Jordan.
"We have been working on lifting the morale of the players," Jouma said. "Our fans have been incredible, and hopefully they will have a positive effect on the team."
Tonight, Fujairah Stadium will no doubt be full again. At stake is a semi-final spot against Iran or South Korea, and automatic qualification to the 2013 Fifa Under 20 World Cup in Turkey.
Jouma is keen to stress that the players are representing Syria as a whole. "The players are positive and hope to repay the fans for their support," he said. " They want to show their love for their country and to all Syrians."
As politicians struggle to find a way out of the turmoil in Syria, its young footballers are, in their very own little way, doing their bit for unity, for all Syrians. Few would begrudge them their success.
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