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Football in times of crisis: Syrian game continues on as inspiration, propaganda, shadow

In apartheid South Africa of the 1960s, the inmates of the infamous Robben Island — a group of political prisoners that included Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma — demanded the right to play football during their exercise periods.

Denied repeatedly for three years and subjected to regular torture, beatings and back-breaking hard labour, these extraordinary men persisted and eventually got their wish.

In 1966, the Makana Football Association, a body formed by the inmates, came into existence.

For the next 20 years, they organised a 1,400 prisoner-strong, eight-team football league, which was played under strict adherence to Fifa rules, although Mandela was barred from participating or even watching the matches.

Robben Island held inmates with ties to an array of political groups and from mixed backgrounds, but agendas and disputes were put aside as they came together for their love for football.

This incredible story, an impassioned symbol of resistance, has been chronicled in Chuck Korr and Marvin Close’s More Than Just A Game, a book often described as the most important football story ever told.

It is safe to assume that nobody from the many different sides involved in the conflict in Syria have even heard of this book.

Football in the war-battered nation is far from a unifying force and is instead being used as a propaganda tool by the different sides.

The regime has been accused of imprisoning and torturing anyone who disagrees with them and footballers are no ­exception.

Abdelbasset Saroot, a former Syria Under 20 goalkeeper is a cult figure in the resistance to Bashar Al Assad’s regime and has taken up arms for his cause, while Mosab Balhous, once a teammate of Saroot’s at the Al Karamah club in Homs, was arrested and jailed in August 2011 after he was accused by the government of sheltering armed rebels.

Goalkeeper Balhous has since returned to the national team, but striker Firas Al Khatib, widely regarded as one of the best footballers to come out of Syria, still refuses to play for his country in a show of solidarity with the opposition.

He plays for Kuwaiti club Al Arabi since his return to the region after a season with Shanghai Shenhua in China.

Al Khatib is not the only football player to leave Syria. Some estimates have suggested that 200 footballers have left Syria since the uprising in 2011 and only a handful of the current national team players still reside in the country.

Some of the displaced players have joined former fighters of the Free Syrian Army and refugees living in neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey, to form what they call the “Free Syrian National Team”.

“It is all politics, it doesn’t feel like football any more,” said Mohammed Muselmani, a player who left Syria after the civil war broke out.

“The opposition wants to create a separate national side, while pro-Assadists want to maintain the same order and system.

“Many players have left the country and now the national side consists of players from the country’s youth teams.”

Tareq Hindawi, captain of Syria’s U20 national team, is one such player and he strongly defends his decision to represent his country.

“There are players who have refused to represent the national team for the time being because they believe they represent a certain side,” Hindawi said.

“But I disagree with their position. We represent our flag and our allegiance is towards this country. We play to carve a smile on to the lips of every Syrian ­supporter.”

Few of these Syrian supporters are visible at the stadiums.

Reports said nine Syrian fans were present to witness the 6-0 drubbing of Afghanistan in a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup in the Iranian city of Mashhad last month. More than 9,000 Afghans had travelled for the match.

Domestic league matches in Syria also attract few crowds, especially since they are held on weekdays and usually scheduled around noon. All the matches are played in Damascus and Latakia because of the security situation.

Eighteen teams have been taking part in the Syrian Premier League over the past three seasons and they are divided into two groups of nine, with one group playing all their matches in Latakia and the other in Damascus.

The top three teams from each group then compete in a round-robin championship round to decide the winner.

Before the uprising, the Syrian top division comprised 14 teams, while the second division could have as many as 32 clubs.

Al Karamah, based in the opposition stronghold of Homs, and Aleppo’s Al Ittihad dominated the league before the outbreak of civil war.

Al Karamah reached the final of the Asian Champions League in 2006 and won the Syrian league title four consecutive years between 2006-09, while six-time league champions Ittihad used to count one of Asia’s biggest stadiums, the Aleppo International Stadium, as their home ground.

Footballers in those pre-uprising days used to enjoy a charmed existence.

“It’s another world,” Shaher Shaheen, a former centre-back with Al Karamah said.

Shaheen, 24, now lives in a refugee camp in the Turkish town of Nizip, but in Homs, he “had a very big house: five bedrooms, a big garden, a gym ... everything”.

With Homs, situated 162 kilometres north of Damascus, now in ruins, players are no longer able to play or train at home.

Both Al Karamah and Ittihad are going through difficult times because of the situation in their home cities, with most of their first-team players having fled and little money to pay the salaries of those who have stayed behind, save the US$27,000 (Dh99,175) that every club receives from the Syrian Football Association for playing in the league.

Hindawi, who was born and raised in Aleppo and started his career at Ittihad before signing up for the Damascus-based Al Majd last year, is disappointed to see his hometown club going through these difficult times.

“Al Ittihad has a supporter base of about 75,000 fans, but only a handful currently attend the club’s matches because of what the country is going through,” Hindawi said.

“When I watch old clips of Al Ittihad before the war and see the fans attendance, I just feel disappointed and despondent.”

The 19-year-old defensive midfielder has not lost all hope, though, and dreams of a better future for both his club and country.

“Al Ittihad is a big club that is sick, but it will never die and, Inshallah, it will return to what it once was,” he said.

“I wish for the return of security and safety to my beloved nation and despite all that we’ve gone through, I have high hopes for Syrian football.”

Hindawi’s optimism mirrors the unbreakable spirit of those defiant former inmates of Robben Island, particularly the most famous of them, Mandela.

“Soccer is more than just a game,” he says in Fifa’s 90 Minutes for Mandela video, talking about the league on Robben Island. “Soccer can create hope where there was once despair.”

Despair is in abundance in Syria these days. Hopefully football, like it did for the inmates of Robben Island, can bring hope and solace to war-torn Syria as well.

History of Syrian football

– Nuri Ibish, a wealthy landowner and Syrian aristocratic, introduced football to Damascus in 1910.

– The country’s first recorded football match was played in 1919, on the outskirts of Damascus, against a team of British soldiers stationed in Syria after the First World War. The match was held under the patronage of King Faysal I, the post-Ottoman ruler of Syria, who rewarded each Syrian player with a gold watch following the team’s 4-0 win.

– The Syrian Football Association was founded in 1936 and the FA became a full member of Fifa in 1937. It joined the Asian Football Confederation in 1969. Gaining independence from the French Mandate in 1945, Syria played their first official match against Turkey in November 20, 1949, but were hammered 0-7.

– Syria have never qualified for the World Cup finals. Their best performance in qualifying was in 1986 when they reached the final round, before losing to Iraq.

– Syria have qualified for the Asian Cup five times, but have never made it to the second round.

– The Syrian League began in 1966 and was won by Al Ittihad Aleppo (known as Al Ahly back then) in its first two seasons.


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Updated: July 20, 2015 04:00 AM



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