Why Syria's Cinderella story may not be what it seems

The remarkable exploits of Syria’s national team that will shortly pit their wits against Australia in a 2018 FIFA World Cup playoff have been described as the stuff of fairy tales.


Captain Firas al-Khatib, No 10, lines up with the Syrian team in their last World Cup qualifier in Iran Source: AFP

As a brutal civil war rages in their country, a bunch of ambitious footballers are two steps away from playing in the game’s biggest tournament. Surely this must be the ultimate feelgood story if ever there was one?

The Syrians and Socceroos finished third in their respective qualifying groups and will now meet over two legs next month for the right to face the fourth-placed team from CONCACAF with a spot at Russia 2018 up for grabs.

Many fans have drawn a parallel between the 'Syrian Cinderellas' and the Iraq team that rewrote the history books of football in the region by winning the 2007 AFC Asian Cup while their war-ravaged country was a complete shambles.

The Iraqis brought joy to an entire nation and became national heroes but the Syrians are unlikely to attain that status because there appears to be more to the team than meets the eye.

You see, while coach Jorvan Vieira’s Iraqis savoured the finest hour in their football history after a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in Jakarta with no assistance whatsoever from their government - simply because there was none at the time - this Syrian team appear to be a different story altogether.

There's a growing view that this Syrian side seeking a spot in Russia appear to be fighting for the country’s despised president Bashar al-Assad.

So much so that they have been dubbed "The Dictator’s Team” and are seen by many as a propaganda machine for a man who at the moment is considered the world’s most brutal dictator.

“We are proud of our president and proud of what he has achieved,” Syrian Football Association (SFA) vice-president Fadi Dabbas told ESPN.

Syria’s national coach from 2015 to 2016, Fajer Ebrahim, even described Assad as “the best man in the world”.

Syria’s authoritarian president has bombed his own people for years in a merciless attempt to retain his power and authority.

He is widely held responsible for the deaths of almost half a million people in his manic drive to win a civil war that started in 2011 and that has spawned a massive refugee crisis.

There are unconfirmed reports that he has tortured and killed many Syrian footballers who were deemed to be ‘enemies of the state’.

There are also suggestions - that have been refuted by the SFA - that some players were forced to turn up for their country in this World Cup campaign under threat of retribution.

Captain Firas al-Khatib, for example, is back in the side after vowing never to play for Syria again as long as Assad was in power. Who knows what made him change his mind?

Assad, like the Argentine junta in 1978, sees a successful national team as justification for dictatorial methods.
Assad has reportedly given the Syrian team all the support they need, except the chance to play their home games on familiar territory because of the horrific violence across the whole country.

The ‘Qasioun Eagles’ have had to host the last five World Cup qualifiers in Malaysia.

So it appears Syria may have been engaging in a bit of gamesmanship to keep the Australians in the dark by suggesting other venues in the Middle East for their home game on October 5.

It was always going to be Malaysia since it appears it is the only country that would host the Syrians. The match will take place in Malacca, which is a two-hour drive south from Kuala Lumpur.

When the Syrians come to Sydney for the return on October 10, perhaps we should think twice before drawing comparisons with the Iraq team that prevailed in 2007 and the Palestine side that featured in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.

Politics and sport are not supposed to mix but they do, unfortunately.

And I am not going to denounce this Syrian team because of where they come from and, more importantly, because of the actions at a higher level of which they have no control.

However, this Syrian side may have lost some sympathy generated by their exploits on the field after publicly (if not privately) throwing their support behind a despised despot.

Some people are beginning to see them not as an intrepid and ambitious football team that are dreaming of glory but a sinister propaganda tool of a hated tyrant.

This Syrian football story just may not be the fairy tale it appears to be.

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4 min read
Published 18 September 2017 at 11:25am
By Philip Micallef