Hoping for first World Cup appearance, Syrians call for return of soccer players

AMMAN: Syrian soccer fans are taking to social media to demand the return of fired national team players after Syria advanced to the final round of World Cup qualifying matches last month.

Syria sealed its entry into the third and final round of World Cup qualifying this March with a 6-0 victory over Cambodia, the first time the team has reached this stage of international soccer in 30 years. The team has never played in the World Cup.

Hoping to improve their chances of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, many Syrians are publicly calling on the government to reinstate former national team players released from the team, possibly due to their perceived sympathies for the Syrian revolution.

Since 2011, the team has lost at least five of its top players, including starters Feras al-Khatib and Omar a-Souma, both of whom are now playing for professional soccer clubs in the Gulf.

The national team dismissed a-Souma in 2012 after he waved the green-and-white “revolutionary flag” following a national team victory in Kuwait.

In recent weeks, several Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates, have reportedly offered a-Souma nationality so that he can play for their national teams.

 ‘Our team needs you,’ reads this Facebook post picturing Syrian soccer players Omar a-Souma, Feras al-khatib and Jihad al-Hussein. Photo courtesy of the Support Syrian Soccer Facebook page

Calls for the reinstatement of players such as a-Souma are crossing the battle lines of Syria’s six-year-old civil war, with Syrians, both those loyal to the Assad regime and those hoping for its removal, joining in.

“Soccer has brought Syrians together in a way that the UN’s Geneva talks couldn’t,” Tamer Ajaj, a self-described pro-opposition student from Damascus, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“It seems like FIFA is stronger than the United Nations.”

#a-Soma_Is_Our_Demand #Syria_World_Cup #Syrian_National_Team_Fans

The Syrian Arab Federation for Football, the government body responsible for organizing the Syrian national team, has not responded to the calls for the reinstatement of the dismissed players.

“We are continuing to pressure the Federation to allow them to return,” Maysam Abass, a sports writer from Homs who is loyal to the Syrian regime, told Syria Direct. 

“We believe that the national team is for everyone and they shouldn’t be barred from playing,” says Abass.

A-Souma is Syrian and will stay Syrian. God Willing a-Souma, Feras and Jihad will come back to the Syrian national team.

This year, Syria’s route to the World Cup may be easier, given that the team is placed in the weaker of the two Asian qualifying groups. 

“This is a historic opportunity for Syria to reach the Cup given they are in the easiest qualifying group in Asia,” said Feras al-Khatib, the former national team striker, in a tweet posted Tuesday.

Given this “historic opportunity,” many of the players are willing to play if their number is called, Muhanad al-Ibrahim, a former national team player who was dismissed in 2011 and currently plays in Oman, told Syria Direct. Ibrahim did not wish to comment on why he left the team.

“All of my former teammates are prepared to return if we are called upon,” says al-Ibrahim.

“This is not a political statement. We just want to play.”

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Orion Wilcox

Orion Wilcox was a 2014-2015 CASA fellow in Amman, Jordan where he interned with the UNRWA Jordan Field Office. He received his BA in Economics and Arabic language from the University of Mississippi. Following the CASA program, Orion worked as a freelance translator and interpreter in Amman.