On October 10, the Syrian Arab Republic national football team – “Team Syria” – will compete in its second match against Australia at Sydney’s Allianz Stadium to qualify for its first ever World Cup tournament. Syria’s surprising rise to the World Cup qualifiers has aroused conflicting emotions among Syrians and has allowed the Assad government to project an image of a united and robust nation on the world stage. Yet beneath this carefully crafted facade remains a team and a population deeply controlled by the Syrian government – which considers unwavering political support as a prerequisite to membership. In order to truly foster unity and reconciliation in Syria, however, every citizen must be afforded the right and opportunity to belong, irrespective of political inclinations. But in Syria, football is a microcosm of the challenges to overcoming societal divides and achieving nationwide reconciliation.
While millions of Syrians were elated by Team Syria’s unexpected success throughout the qualifying rounds, the occasion left many others conflicted and disillusioned. On social media, some Syrians even posted that they would rather root for the opposing team than support Team Syria. The chilled response was largely due to the frustration over the team’s de facto leadership: the Assad government, which has leveraged the appeal of sports players in Syria to manipulate public opinion and quell dissent.
Rules of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) state that member associations must be independent and avoid any political interference. Yet, during the conflict, players have been compelled to march in pro-Assad rallies, wear T-shirts bearing the president’s image, and make pro-government statements to the press. Criticism of the government is strictly prohibited among athletes, and those who defy this unwritten rule have been reportedly killed, forcibly disappeared, or tortured to death. Reports also suggest several national team players have been compelled to play against their will by government threats to harm detained family members or loved ones.
These divisive tactics have forced players into awkward positions. In 2012, Team Syria’s captain, Firas al Khatib, publicly renounced the government and stated he would not play for the national team “as long as any artillery is shelling any place in Syria.” But Al Khatib shocked fans in 2017 by returning to the team, telling ESPN, “I’m afraid. What happened is very complicated, 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.” Upon return, al Khatib posed for press photographs in front of a large portrait of President Assad while holding a Syrian flag. Syria’s star striker Omar al Somah also publicly backed the opposition in 2012 – defiantly waving a revolutionary flag during a match in Kuwait. After playing on foreign teams for five years, al Somah returned to Team Syria in August. Since rejoining, the athlete has publicly thanked President Assad in the media and on Facebook for permitting his return, as well as for the release of a detained former clubmate – jailed since 2013 for refusing compulsory military service. Reports speculate that al Somah’s conditioned his return on his friend’s release.
Commandeering sporting culture to advance government interests is not unique to Syria. In 2009, the former head coach of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal team, Cosmin Olaroiu, threw a shirt picturing Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz on the ground during a post-game incident. Though Olaroiu apologized, explaining the perceived insult was inadvertent, he was summarily sacked and ordered to leave the country by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. In Ba’athist Iraq, former President Saddam Hussain’s son Uday oversaw the team and discouraged football losses by inflicting severe physical and psychological torture on athletes who underperformed. He also dictated team selection, favoring less skilled Sunni minorities over Shiite players. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has been accused of turning a blind eye to the physical abuse of athletes by coaches because of its desire to dominate international sporting tournaments and arouse national pride.
In contrast, football also has the potential to unify, educate, and espouse cultural and humanitarian values. Indeed, international development organizations use football as a platform for reconciliation programs, and icons like Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham are respected for their philanthropy in addition to their football prowess. Yet the Syrian government’s systematic manipulation of the game and its athletes entirely undercuts these values, instead advancing a clear political message: accept Assad’s rule or forgo inclusion. Assad touted this message in August, claiming that Syria lost many of its brightest youth and infrastructure during the war but “gained a healthier and more homogenous society.” Assad’s notion that political homogeneity outweighs the need for inclusion – or the value of human life – is a monumental obstacle to reconciliation. Societal healing builds upon an individual or group’s sense of belonging within a community. In branding all institutions within Syria as quintessentially pro-Assad, the government denies this sense of belonging to those hold differing political beliefs.
While FIFA refuses to address the clear evidence of political interference in Syrian football, there is an even larger issue at stake. The government’s exploitation of national symbols like the Syrian football team fundamentally divide the country and block efforts to establish and maintain peace. As negotiations move forward, it is imperative that joining parties – and particularly the UN Special Envoy – condition any agreement upon the granting of basic human rights, including the free espousal of one’s political views. Without such reforms, the corrupt and oppressive tactics so deeply entrenched in Syria’s governmental culture will continue to quell attempts at lasting peace, reform, and reconciliation.
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