Syria and the FIFA World Cup 2018: An unlikely tryst with destiny

I think one of the many reasons why football is such a globally loved game is its ability to transcend borders, cultures, religions and even wars. The beauty of the game lies in its simplicity. Ronaldinho once said,“I learned all about life with the ball at my feet” and last Thursday night, I felt the same emotions of unbridled joy and delight as I saw Omar Kharbin nonchalantly tuck away a penalty which would see his Syrian side make it to the knockout stages of the FIFA 2018 World Cup in Russia. It was an indescribable feeling, something akin to watching a paralyzed person walking for the first time — it was just that special!

The Syrian civil war is into its 7th year now and has shown no signs of stopping down.  It has displaced over 6 million people, killed about 500,000 of them and has destroyed property worth trillions. It doesn’t matter who is right or who is wrong on this side of the war, an entire country has been brought to its knees and all that that remains are destroyed cities, dead bodies, and of course, the undying love for football.

Before the war, Syrian football was making new headlines in the Asian football circuit and reached a new level when Al-Karamah Sporting Club, based in Hons reached the finals of the Asian Champions League in 2006. The now-infamous city of Aleppo had Al Ittihad, who also made it to the group stages of the AFC Champions League. The national team made it to the 2011 Asian Cup for the first time in more than a decade. Overall, the game was on a rise before the uprising engulfed the nation.

Over the next few years, football was relegated to the back seats as a perennial state of fear and turmoil forced many to immigrate and find new homes. The domestic football season did not stop, although it was not as prominent as before. The death of a number of key players due to the violence, most notably that of promising young starlet Youssef Suleiman grabbed media attention and led to former FIFA president Sepp Blatter extending his condolences to the local footballing community. As the war raged on, it was necessary to ensure the youngsters who took up the game were not misled by the false promises of salvation promised by the insurgents. Some, like the eighteen-year-old Mohammed Jaddou, left Syria for better opportunities in Germany while others got embroiled with the mass civilian movement. In the meantime, the qualifiers for the World Cup in Russia had started. Unsure about the security of the stadiums and the mudslinging of the international community regarding the refugee crisis, FIFA, who had just frozen a funding on 2.25 million dollars to the Syrian FA fearing it might be used to fund terrorist activities, decided to condemn the national team to play their home games in Oman and Myanmar, 4500 kilometres from their motherland.

The Ouasian Eagles have not left their fellow nation down, though. Losing only to group leaders Japan and Qatar, they have underlined their dominance in Asia by making it to the fourth spot on the table, ahead of continental powerhouses like China PR and Qatar. They are only a point of from the play-off spot and have an extremely good chance of making it to the finals. Bolstered by an air-tight defence comprising of players who get paid a meager 161 pounds a year, Syria has set an example for all those who dare to dream and they will not stop till they have reached their ultimate goal.

Football is a simple game in a complex world that is often ravaged by politics, hatred, and hypocrisy. In troubled times, the beautiful game has often helped bring communities together, as was demonstrated in 1967 when the two warring factions in Vietnam declared a ceasefire to watch Pele play. As Omair stepped up to take the penalty that night, his shoulders carried the hopes and dreams of millions whose lives have been turned upside down by the war. He delivered with flawless precision, giving the goalkeeper the eyes and then slotting it home with an impeccably-timed Panenka and wheeled away towards the fans who had come to watch their team. It takes a lot of guts to do what the twenty-three-year-old did that night and that too in such a charismatic fashion, but having seen the trials and tribulations his people have suffered, he must have known the importance of the message he was about to give to the world and decided he had to do it in the most daring manner possible.

While there is still some way to go till they make it to the final 32 teams who will be travelling to Russia, with Korea being the next big block on 28th March, Syria’s road to football’s most coveted trophy is one that is glittered with determination, grit and a desire to start again from the very beginning, something that should still mean something in this unforgiving and broken world.

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