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Road to Russia football fever unites war-divided Syrians

Damascus (AFP) – For the first time in Syria’s conflict, sport has come to the defence of the deeply-fractured country’s unity, with regime backers and foes alike dreaming of World Cup 2018 qualification.

All eyes and ears will be on Tuesday night’s game away to Iran, the government’s ally in the six-year conflict but a barrier to Syria’s target of making its World Cup finals debut next year in Russia, another close war ally.

For residents of rebel-held areas of Syria as well as those under government control and in the autonomy-seeking Kurdish territories, triumph in Tehran would bring a welcome respite from a brutal conflict which has cost more than 330,000 lives.

At a coffeeshop in the capital, Ali was supervising last-minute preparations on Monday for the more than 500 Damascenes who have reserved seats to watch the match on widescreen televisions.

In Group A of Asian qualifying, South Korea, Syria, Uzbekistan and China all remain in the running for either the second automatic berth or a place in the play-offs by finishing third.

Syria, despite playing their home games in Malaysia because of the war, currently occupy the play-off spot after a win and a draw against China, wins over Uzbekistan and Qatar, and draws with South Korea and Iran.

To book their ticket to Russia, Syria would need to win on Tuesday and South Korea lose to Uzbekistan, or they could take the perilous play-offs route to qualification. 

Iran, who have yet to concede a goal, have already qualified.

“I have promised customers desserts on the house if we win,” said Ali, who has plastered a massive poster of the national team on the wall.

Local authorities in Damascus, aware of people’s hunger to escape the daily economic and political hardships of life in wartime, plan to set up giant television screens in public squares.

– ‘Victory for Syria not for regime’ –

All across Syria, from the mostly Kurdish-held northeastern city of Hasakeh to the southern province of Daraa, a cradle of anti-regime protests that degenerated into all-out war, the Syria-Iran showdown is a big talking point.

Sunil, a soldier, negotiated in vain with his comrades to take over his guard duty in Daraa on Tuesday night so he could watch the match on television.

He will now have to listen in on the radio.

“I’ve been a soldier for more than seven years now. For me, the Syrian team’s qualification would give me more pleasure than if my (army) service was ending,” the young man told AFP by telephone.

“This is the team of the whole of Syria, the opposition and supporters” of the regime, said the soldier.

Even within the team, differences have at least temporarily been set aside. 

Star striker Firas al-Khatib, who joined the opposition after protests broke out in 2011, has returned to the team after an absence of several years.

In rebel-held areas of Syria, enthusiasm for the team is just as palpable, despite some misgivings.

“This team, we support it and we don’t support it,” said Ghaith al-Sayyed, a young resident of the town of Binnish in the northwestern province of Idlib.

In the future, “if the team qualifies for the World Cup, we will say it was Syria that qualified, not (President) Bashar al-Assad or his regime,” said the 19-year-old.

Ibrahim Shaker, who plays in Binnish’s local football club, was less accommodating.

“Politically speaking, I’m against the team,” Shaker said. 

“It’s difficult for football to unite a people after the massacres which have been carried out, the deaths and destruction.”

But he conceded: “If we qualify, it will be a victory for Syria, not for the regime.”

Wafi al-Bahsh, who runs a football club in Kafr Batna, in the rebel-run farming area of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, said “sport and politics must be separated”.

“My dream is to see Syria qualify for the World Cup… This team is not Assad’s team, it’s Syria’s team.”


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