Saturday, February 24, 2024
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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Politics on the pitch: Controversy surrounding Syria’s national soccer team

Credit: Vecstock

Last Wednesday, the Syrian soccer team exited the round of 16 of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup currently being held in Qatar after losing to the Iranian team with a final score of 5-3 after the match ended in a 1-1 tie in both regular and extra time leading to a penalty kick shootout.

Supporters of the Syrian regime and some opposition members believe that the team represents all Syrians, speaking about the necessity of separating politics from sports, while others consider that the team represents the regime, which exploits it politically, dubbing it “the barrel bomb team,” referring to the explosive barrels that regime forces have been using to bombard opposition-held areas since 2011.

Many belonging to the opposition refuse to link its name to the country as a whole, considering the team as an integral part of the ruling regime that devastated the country with the use of explosive barrels causing the death and displacement of millions of residents. Others argue that the team should be viewed as representing “Syria as a whole” and thus its achievements should bring joy to all Syrians. 

it was the players themselves who chose to align themselves with the regime and its leader who has been determined to be a criminal by the majority of human rights organizations around the world

The controversy brewing among Syrians regarding the team intensified after a video recording of the Syrian soccer players began circulating on social media after qualifying for the round of 16 with a 1-0 win against India. The video documented the bus full of players celebrating their qualification to the second round of the Asian Cup by chanting “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Bashar” and “God, Syria, and only Bashar.” The scenario itself appears to settle the argument at the heart of the controversy; Is the team the Syrian national team that represents all Syrians? Or is it the Assad regime’s team referred to as “the barrel bomb team?”

While some Syrian sports enthusiasts were beginning to believe that it may be possible to view sports and politics through different lenses, it was the players themselves who chose to align themselves with the regime and its leader who has been determined to be a criminal by the majority of human rights organizations around the world. The stance they have chosen to take makes it impossible to separate their achievements from the many brutal atrocities committed by the dictator they continue to pledge their allegiance to.

Bashar Haj Ali, a Syrian sports analyst, told SYRIAWISE: “The Syrian sports street is divided not only into two halves, but a terrible contradiction of opinions prevailed following the Syrian national team’s exit from the second round of the Asian Cup. Two groups defended the team: The first, whose members have personal interests and professional affiliations and the second is mostly composed of young people who know nothing about the history of soccer in Syria,” adding that “if the soccer giant Abdul Naser al Abbasi passed by them, they wouldn’t even recognize him. And if they heard names like Abdul Kader Kardaghli, Nizar Mahrous, Jehad Ashrafi, Ali Cheikh Dib and before them George Mukhtar, Fateh Zaki, Joseph Shahrestan, and Mahmoud Tughli, they would say, ‘What did these people do?'”

“Syrian football is part of a crumbling regime that has devoured every green patch across the Syrian land”

Bashar Haj Ali

“As for the moderate group that criticized the Syrian team and laughed at the reception ceremony held at the Syrian-Lebanese border as if they were returning crowned as the Asian Cup winners, this group mostly consists of experts in the game, whether former players or critics working in the field of media and none of them has any aspirations to be hired for managerial positions.

“Syrian football is part of a crumbling regime that has devoured every green patch across the Syrian land and is making every effort to eliminate what remains.”

“The scenario of the Syrian national team resulted in contradictory responses even among its supporters”

Mohamad Jehad Ashrafi

For his part, Bashar Assad addressed the Syrian national team through the “Presidency of the Republic” page on Facebook, expressing condolences for their loss against the Iranian national team and their exit from the 2023 Asian Cup in Qatar, saying: “Proud of your performance and determination, you were eagles flying high and making joy, and the hearts of all the fans were beating with you. You have all the appreciation; players, coaches, and administrators.”

Captain Mohamad Jehad Ashrafi, former Syrian national team player currently coaching a team in Istanbul, commented on the status of Syrian sports when he told SYRIAWISE: “The scenario of the Syrian national team resulted in contradictory responses even among its supporters. Some reacted with cheers and joy for reaching the round of 16, considering it an achievement for the Syrian soccer team. Another faction mocked this achievement as mediocre, not worthy of the celebration that welcomed the team and the coach upon their return from Qatar. They treated the coach like a celebrity as if he did something extraordinary.” 

the bottom line is that everything in the regime-controlled areas of Syria is under the control of Assad. The Syrian national team is affiliated with the sports union belonging to the ruling regime in Damascus

Regardless of the arguments presented, the bottom line is that everything in the regime-controlled areas of Syria is under the control of Assad. The Syrian national team is affiliated with the sports union belonging to the ruling regime in Damascus, and thus it effectively represents this regime and all of its players are hand-picked by them. Sports in Syria under the Assads have never been far from the political arena with accusations of “corruption and favoritism” being leveled against the sports system as a whole. Even more insidious was the arbitrary detention and subsequent killing in recent years of at least two well-known soccer players who fell out of favor with the regime.

Regardless of the accolades showered on the team by Assad, sports have never been one of his priorities. Rather the popularity of soccer worldwide has inspired him to use the team as a tool to assert the regime’s presence externally.

Yasser Ashkar
Yasser Ashkar
Former instructor at Istanbul University. Ashkar is a Founding Member of the Association of Syrian Refugees, Human Rights Activist and Journalist. He currently lives in Michigan, USA.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I completely agree. The debate over whether the Syrian national team represents Syria or political exploitation reflects the deep divisions within the country. The term ‘the barrel bomb team’ encapsulates the grim reality faced by many Syrians, where sports become entangled in the larger conflict.
    It’s disheartening to see sports being exploited for political purposes rather than being valued for their ability to inspire and unite Syrian people.

  2. Indeed, the dichotomy between those who see the team as a symbol of national unity and those who view it as a tool of political exploitation underscores the profound divisions within Syrian society.
    Assad manipulates the Syrian national team to deceive the populace, masquerading its representation as a unifying force while covertly exploiting it for political gain

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