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World Cup hope brings relief and divisions in Syria

Damascus (AFP) – The prospect of reaching football’s World Cup and creating one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history is giving Syrians something else to think about after years of grinding war.

Syria’s underdog team, who because of the war are based in Malaysia, take on Australia in Sydney on Tuesday with the score from the first leg of their playoff poised at 1-1.

Victory would set up another playoff, possibly against Panama, for a place in the finals in Russia next year.

In Damascus, there is palpable excitement. Several campaigns have been organised on social media calling on parliament to make Tuesday a national holiday, and some students at Damascus University have asked for lectures that coincide with the match to be rescheduled.

Mohamed Barafi, 23, was not taking any chances and has requested a day off from the tech firm where is employed so he can watch the match, which will start around noon Damascus time.

He has cancelled all his plans on Monday night, and plans to watch sports shows analysing the team’s chances — he has even changed all his profile pictures on his social media accounts to photos of the team’s players.

“I hope that Tuesday will be an official holiday. Last time during the match there wasn’t a person on the streets, in the markets or at university, everyone was watching,” he said.

Super fan Jaafar Miya has memorised the dates of all the matches, as well as the players’ names, ages and birthdays, and the 25-year-old journalism student said he was hoping Tuesday would be a memorable day.

“I dream of specialising in sports writing if we qualify for the World Cup, and that I’ll tell my children and grandchildren about these days.”

He is planning to watch the match with his friends in Ummayed Square, one of several public spaces where screens have been set up so people can view the game.

In the Al-Harika market in Damascus’s Old City, Abu Shadi, in his fifties, is opening his sports goods store two hours earlier than usual, at 7:00 am, because he expects demand for Syria football shirts to be sky high.

“The whole market has been opening early for the past week. We’re getting hundreds of orders for red, black and white shirts, the strip worn by the Syrian team. It’s really like we’re in the Eid holiday, when sales usually increase.”

With the rise in demand, prices are up too, although Abu Shadi insists the hike comes from the manufacturers. He has raised his prices from 2,800 Syrian pounds ($5.60) a shirt to 3,500 Syrian pounds ($7)

– Divided loyalties –

But the loyalties of the war are never far from the surface in Syria.

Syrians aligned with the rebels who oppose President Bashar al-Assad have a different view of the national team.

Mohamed Obeid, a 22-year-old from Binnish in Idleb province whose football allegiances lie more with Lionel Messi’s Barcelona, said he was furious that the national team had dedicated the victory to the “criminal Assad”.

“This team represents the regime and its supporters, but it doesn’t represent me. I don’t care if they win or lose. In fact, I hope they lose.”

Farouk Hassoun, from the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus that is still under rebel control, felt the same.

“Of course the national team is in our hearts, but this is only a national team in the sporting sense of the term.

“Unfortunately it is linked to the regime which spreads death and destruction.”

Mohamed al-Shami, who also lives in Ghouta, said he would watch the game anyway.

“At the end of the day, when you watch it’s because you like sport,” the 25-year-old said.

Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with peaceful anti-government protests that were brutally repressed by the government.

It evolved into a complex multi-front war that has killed more than 330,000 people and displaced millions from their homes.

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