Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Assad’s sport squad: A whitewashing scheme

Syrian National Football Team; Credit: Social media

For the first time in its history, Syria has qualified for the knockout stage at the AFC Asian Cup tournament currently being hosted in Qatar. Large crowds have turned out to support many of the teams, but not all. One of the teams that have little support comes from Syria as many activists believe that the national team has been tailor-made to sports wash the Assad regime.

in all Arab societies, football continues to be the most popular sport, capable of bringing thousands of people together singing, and chanting patriotic, revolutionary, and nationalist chants that coincide with political movements

According to the math required for moving to the next round, one win, a draw, and a loss, gave the Syrian team four points which were sufficient to secure a third-place spot in the round of 16 against an opponent most likely poised to be stronger than the Syrian squad. Regardless of the field statistics, in all Arab societies, football continues to be the most popular sport, capable of bringing thousands of people together singing, and chanting patriotic, revolutionary, and nationalist chants that coincide with political movements. With that in mind, the domestic sports scene has seen significant state intervention on behalf of a “sports washing,” or political competitive sporting diplomacy project, by Tehran and Jeddah, inspiring the Syrian regime to attempt a similar investment as well.

In Syria, the underlying condition to ensure a player’s call up to the national team is their willingness to serve Bashar Assad’s public image interests

While the Syrian team has an estimated total squad market value of less than 17 million euros according to Transfermarkt, they have somehow managed to hire former La Liga coach and UEFA Champions League finalist Hector Cuper, the Argentinian who has commanded the Syrian team since February of 2023 when he signed a contract of undisclosed length and salary which can nevertheless be considered beyond the means of the severely depressed Syrian economy and its football prospects. During Cuper’s time at the helm, he has made passionate statements to international sporting media, regarding his desire to see Syrians happy with their teams’ results given the country’s experience of a devastating earthquake last year, with no mention whatsoever of the country’s devastating Assad generated humanitarian crisis. In light of the overwhelming popularity of soccer internationally, it is not surprising that football success can have the same effect as a carrot on a herd-behaving population desperate for any excuse to feel joy after more than a decade of civil conflict, regime suppression, violent bombing, and economic desperation.

Normally for most competitive football national teams, a lineup is selected according to the athletic and technical merits of the players displayed during their regular season at their respective clubs, training camp performance, and national team scouting assessments. In Syria, the underlying condition to ensure a player’s call up to the national team is their willingness to serve Bashar Assad’s public image interests.

Regardless of Qassab’s formidable footballing career and the many goals he scored for the Syrian national team, most notably during the 1998 FIFA Arab Cup tournament, his unwillingness to bend to the regime, his only crime, was used as justification to kill him

Even with a FIFA consensus established to encourage players to “separate sports from politics,” many have been defiant, opting instead to favor the political arrangements they have made with the regime. In a recent video, a bus full of Syrian national football team players can be seen chanting for Assad, the same regime family that once tortured player Jihad Qassab to death in the well-known regime-controlled Sednaya prison where many suffered a similar fate. Regardless of Qassab’s formidable footballing career and the many goals he scored for the Syrian national team, most notably during the 1998 FIFA Arab Cup tournament, his unwillingness to bend to the regime, his only crime, was used as justification to kill him.

no one should be fooled by the behavior of the players or their apparent success, the true team captain travels not between boxes, but between Tehran and the Kremlin where his real political support exists

In football, to have a serious shot at competitive success, the team must be formed by freely competitive players whose eyes are on the ball, not any political agenda. In Syria under Bashar, and under Hafez’s rule before him, that is impossible as the entire General Sports Federation which acts as the highest sports authority in Syria was formed by Hafez Assad by legislative decree No 38. This means that security forces, political figures, and the Ba’ath party’s human resources, all monitor the behavior of Syria’s football program. As a result, no one should be fooled by the behavior of the players or their apparent success, the true team captain travels not between boxes, but between Tehran and the Kremlin where his real political support exists. In an Asian Cup with the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria, among other authoritarian regimes, let it be known that the Assad regime security apparatus extends into all sections of public and private life in Syria, and sports are no exception, especially the world’s most popular one: football.

Walid TAMTAM
Walid TAMTAM
Canadian researcher and writer on foreign policy issues, civil liberty, sports diplomacy, and political movements in the Middle East and North Africa, with a passion that extends to comprehensive research on the hidden details within the private sector, digital media, and sports industries and their use by authoritarian regimes around the world

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