The Syrian national team, ranked 80th in the world, has its best-ever chance of making a World Cup. A 2-2 draw against Iran, salvaged by striker Omar Al Somah in injury time, saved them from elimination. The team still needs to beat Australia in a two-leg playoff tie next, then overcome a CONCACAF side — one of the United States, Panama, or Honduras — to move on. Still, the mountain left to climb has done nothing to subdue the joy in Damascus.
Incredible scenes in #Damascus last night as Syrian fans flooded the streets after their national team made it to the World Cup play-off. pic.twitter.com/sRI5Edfbxo— DW Sports (@dw_sports) September 6, 2017
Viewed purely as a sports story, it’s almost perfect: A low-ranked team is close to doing something it has never done before, something that has been unimaginable in all of its history, and it’s doing it by exhibiting the sporting clichés of passion, togetherness, and never giving up.
Except that it’s not that simple. The story the Syrian national team is muddied by what they represent. A lot of evidence suggests that the team is being used as a political weapon by the Assad regime. Tareq, a fan of the team but a critic of Assad, explained his mixed feelings to The Guardian:
“The attention they’re giving the situation is more than just the fact that the Syrian team has gone this far. The regime is using the support and love the Syrians have for the team to harness support for itself. It’s like they’re telling people: ‘Look, we’re on the same side. We even got players who oppose us to play and we support them. We’re united.’ And I thought sports should be politically neutral...But I’m proud, I’m proud of how far they have come. I’m proud of the fact that the team holds opposition members. I’m proud that despite the fact that they’re broke, with no means to practise as other teams can, they made it this far.”
The Syrian civil war has killed and displaced more than 470,000 people since 2011. The Assad regime have been accused of everything from using chemical weapons on civilians to using soccer stadiums as military bases for their operations. According to reports, they’ve killed at least 38 players from the top two divisions of the country’s professional league.
As much as we may desire it, sports have never been — nor can ever be — separated from the political world. There are countless examples of sports being used as a political tool; the Olympics especially have been rife with it. Think of Adolf Hitler (then Chancellor of Germany) trying to use the 1936 Olympics to promote his racist ideals, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute in 1968, the United States boycotting the 1980s Olympics as a protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, to name a few.
FIFA pretends that it can maintain this nonexistent distance in soccer, but international soccer is just as entangled in politics as the Olympics. The Football War in 1969, which was a four-day battle between El Salvador and Honduras that killed and injured around 6,000 people after the two countries met in the World Cup qualifiers, is the most grisly example of that relationship. But politics manifest in everything from the composition of the French national team to Megan Rapinoe’s kneeling protest.
In reference to Syria’s situation being a violation of FIFA’s own rules against governments interfering with national teams, FIFA’s response to that it was that it was out of their hands. That the “tragic circumstances ... go far beyond the domain of sporting matters."
I remember watching the Belgium national team with my mother one day and she said that what she loved about international soccer is that you can see the history of the world on the field. You could watch Romelu Lukaku, his brother Jordan, and Youri Tielemans — three players with Congolese roots — play alongside players Eden and Thorgan Hazard, whose ancestry is strictly Belgian. It’s a wonderful thing that can’t be removed from the terrible history between Belgium and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or to a larger extent, the colonization of African countries by European powers.
International soccer teams are the history and politics of that country and the world playing out on a field.
It doesn’t take much effort to see how history and sports are entwined, the hard part is acknowledging and dealing with it as part of the specter of soccer and not something separate from it. The pure joy of seeing the Syrian national team score a last-minute goal to keep their World Cup hopes alive isn’t just that a small team is trying to do the impossible, but that a team that represents a country at war with itself, a people divided, is supposedly acting as a unifying force.
Except that beyond the immediate emotional response is the realization that the team is part of some great manipulation, and that this wonderful thing is being used as political propaganda. That shouldn’t be ignored. It’s a disappointing thing to know, but it’s important to be aware of it and how politics, both on a grander scale and the general political life of the athletes themselves, play a role in the sporting world.
If I were to ignore that Firas al-Khatib, who once protested against the team and Assad but now is back playing for the team, is scared for his life, it wouldn’t change the reality of it. If I ignore that he believes half of the country will hate him whether he chooses to play or not, my delusion won’t erase how political his life is. That truth will exist, I would just become passive to it.
Politics and sports go hand in hand because life is political and sports can’t escape that. It’s better if I am conscious of this relationship — to actively think about the different tensions on the field and what last-minute goals sometimes mean — in order to have the agency to decide what I consume. The alternative is becoming a tool for propaganda, someone who passively absorbs things like the narrative of the Syrian national team without questioning the nature and truth of that story.
The goal of being a sports fan should be to investigate the mystery without ruining the miracle of it. To understand how the past can lead to players of Congolese roots being on the Belgian national team and still enjoy watching Romelu Lukaku finish off a move initiated by Eden Hazard. To love watching a team ranked 80th in the world claw themselves into World Cup contention without forgetting what the team is being used for.
Sometimes the political side will prove too overbearing for the sporting side to be enjoyed, and that’s fine. One should have the awareness to decide where that line is. The only inexcusable thing is to be willfully ignorant of politics in sports, because doing so is to decide to not see the world as it is, and in some cases, to be manipulated.