Divided reactions as Syria’s soccer team nears World Cup qualification

AMMAN: Syria’s national soccer team is facing off against Iran Tuesday evening in a match that could qualify the Qasioun Eagles for their first-ever World Cup.

The game is deadlocked at 1–1 as of halftime.

The match comes after Syria’s national team defeated Qatar 3–1 on Thursday, the latest in a series of wins through the World Cup’s qualification rounds. 

The Qasioun Eagles—a nickname for the team referring to the mountain overlooking Damascus—are now just one victory away from clinching their first-ever ticket to the World Cup, despite playing all matches abroad due to security concerns at home.

With a win in Tehran, the Syrian national team will finish in at least third place in its qualifying group, Group A, an outcome that would lead to a playoff round with the third place winner in Group B. The outcome of a separate match between South Korea and Uzbekistan, also on Tuesday, however, could also push Syria to second place in its group, resulting in an automatic qualification to the 2018 tournament in Russia, where 32 teams will compete.

In Syria Direct’s newsroom Tuesday morning, the daily discussion of events across the country turned, for a change, toward soccer and the significance of the match against Iran.

Syria’s national soccer team, sporting the colors of the regime's flag. Photo courtesy of SANA.

A handful of Syrian reporters agreed that a victory in Tehran could be celebrated by all Syrians, regardless of their political stance.

Others suggested that the national team no longer represents all of the Syrian people.  

“Unfortunately, the Syrian regime has politicized the situation,” one reporter said, referring to photos of the team’s coach and a number of players wearing shirts with images of Bashar al-Assad on them at a press conference in 2015.

“No one who opposes the government could also support what has become Bashar al-Assad’s team,” the reporter added.

The newsroom debate led us to ask how Syrians across the country view the team and its upcoming match.

In Syria’s capital, we heard from Nouri Abdul Ra’ouf, a university student.

“The atmosphere in Damascus is truly beautiful today,” he said, describing residents as “excited and hopeful for a victory.”

Screens are set up in public spaces across the capital where viewers are gathering to watch, he told Syria Direct.

“For the first time since the start of the crisis, people agree on something,” he added.

Yazar Othman, a correspondent with the Arab24 network, agreed with Abdul Ra’ouf, speaking to Syria Direct from Qamishli in the far northeast Kurdish region.

“Syrians are divided on everything, even sports, but a victory for the team will bring joy and pleasure to the hearts of many.”

The journalist insisted that regardless of political changes, the soccer team remains “an institution of the state, not the government.”

“The evidence is that there are many players opposed [to the government] who play on the team,” he added.

Indeed, at least one player on the team has publicly sympathized with the Syrian opposition.

Team striker Firas al-Khatib boycotted the team for five years, pledging not to play as long as the government continued to bombard opposition-held areas. He returned to his position this year.

Amir al-Ghazal, a resident of rebel stronghold Idlib province, said that the team’s use of the Syrian flag is a sign of its political affiliation to the government.

“Tens of thousands of Syrians dreaming of a more beautiful Syria were killed under the same flag,” he said.

The idea that victory will “bring everyone together” is “a lie,” he added. “If a Syrian loves Syria, he should hate this team.”

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.