The idea of bringing together thousands of people in a public venue in war-torn Syria would usually be a recipe for disaster. The Middle-eastern country has been devastated for more than a half decade by a ruinous civil war, which has claimed scores of lives, seen the nation divided into regions loyal in turn to President Bashar Al-Assad and rebel warlords and caused an acute refugee crisis that has left its own impact on european politics and the wider world.
It is a tribute, then, to the power of football that on Tuesday the al-Jalaa stadium in Damascus was opened up to an estimated 3,000 fans who were gripped by Syria’s World Cup qualifier against Iran. An incredible last-minute equaliser earned the nation a 2-2 draw, which gives them the right to face Australia and then another hopeful from North America in two play-offs that could send them to their first World Cup.
Syria’s battle against the odds is no mean achievement. They have been banned from hosting international football games since the beginning of the armed conflict and almost faced disqualification for the current qualifying campaign before a ball had even been kicked. That outcome was avoided when Malaysia stepped in with the offer to host syrian games during the competition and what has followed has been nothing short of a fairytale as they battled through three separate stages to leave themselves within a few games of taking on the likes of Brazil in Russia.
“Our team is ready to achieve victory and qualify syria for the first time to the World Cup,” the national team’s Chief administrator Muwaffaq Fathallah said ahead of the game. “We want the syrian people to be happy.” It is true, however, that not all syrians are enthused by their march to the brink of Russia 2018. Many, especially those in rebel strongholds, see the team as bolstering the Al-Assad regime by representing them on an international level, even as the country continues to suffer under the twin punishments of civil war and suffocating economic sanctions. But others too, most notably star player Firas al-Khatib, have notably mixed feelings about the run.
Al-Khatib returned to Damascus for the first time in five years this week and is an outspoken opponent of Al-Assad, often seen in fundraising events for the rebels outside syria. Speaking to esPn, he admitted that coming back was a gutwrenching decision. “Every day before I sleep, maybe one hour, two hours, just thinking about this decision,” he said. “Whatever happens, 12 million syrians will love me. Another 12 million syrians will want to kill me.”
“It’s something all syrians can come together on, but there is no escaping the government,” Tareq, a young fan living in exile told The Guardian. “The attention they’re giving the situation is more than just the fact that the syrian team has gone this far. The regime is using the support and love syrians have for the team to harness support for itself. But I’m proud, I’m proud of how far they have come. I’m proud of the fact that the team holds opposition members. I’m proud that despite the fact that they’re broke, with no means to practise as other teams can, they made it this far.”
Of course, no conflict of the nature and scale of that in syria can be healed over 90 minutes. But in Damascus, Beirut and across the world on Tuesday, for the first time in many years, syrians of all political colours cheered as al-Khatib and his team-mates did them proud. It was a reminder that, far from the millions of dollars and naked commercialism that plagues the game at its highest level, football can still serve as a way of uniting torn communities – if only for a few hours.