Football provides hope in Syria
© AFP

Time and time again, the game of football has proven its worth as a source of unity and solidarity in times of trouble. Iraq’s victory at the AFC Asian Cup in 2007 is just one example of this force at work. Despite their differences and the political problems that plagued their country, the entire Iraqi population got behind their team as they progressed through to the final. Now it is the turn of the Syrian national team to unite their people behind them, despite the current conflict in the west Asian nation.

The conflict has had a profound impact on the game in Syria. Two years ago FIFA halted all training and educational initiatives in the country and the organization’s Financial Assistance Programme (FAP) disbursed no financial aid for 2012 and 2013. Furthermore, the security situation has prevented the installation of a full sized turf pitch in Damascus (Goal project 3). Before the conflict, the Syrian FA was very active in terms of benefitting from FIFA development programmes. They had four Goal projects, several technical activities organised in various areas, and were participating in the Performance programme. However, this all had to stop unfortunately due the conflict.

Yet two months ago, the national team managed to shrug off these difficulties to win their first ever West Asian Football Federation Championship and this week they began their qualifying campaign for the AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015, taking on Group A rivals Oman. FIFA.com caught up with coach Hosam Al Sayed to talk about Syria’s West Asian triumph and discuss the role of the game in uniting a people divided by recent events in the country.

“Football always gives happiness and joy,” the former Syrian international said, “and it has a positive effect on people. It puts a smile on the fans’ faces. Winning the West Asian trophy had a really positive impact and one we felt ourselves, and I hope we can contribute to reviving the Syrian people’s spirits by our performance in the Asian Cup qualifiers.”

We have brushed off our personal suffering and achieved some excellent recent results. This has raised our morale and given great joy to all Syrians.
Mosab Balhous, Syria captain

But while Al Sayed and his men have claimed a number of crucial victories, and gave a creditable performance in their recent 1-0 defeat to Oman in Muscat, the situation at home has hampered their preparations. They have hardly any warm-up games under their belts as they come into the qualifiers, but Al Sayed is optimistic that this will change in the near future.

“We’ve had a problem securing friendly matches for the side given that other teams are still working with the previous schedule,” he admitted, “but we should overcome that problem shortly. We’re hoping to play a number of games in the days set aside for international friendlies to help us get more accustomed to match pressure.”

The Syrian league, which was suspended for a considerable period and had the start of its new season repeatedly delayed, finally got underway again this Tuesday, with a number of games being staged in the capital Damascus. This season the league is made up of two groups of nine teams and the matches will be played in front of empty stands.

For the 41-year-old coach the revival of the domestic football scene is vitally important: “The league gives players a chance to develop. They need games to improve their standards and retain fitness, and this helps the national team perform at a consistently high level.”

Football and society
It is common knowledge that such instability often leaves many victims in its wake and can gravely affect social cohesion. Football has a proven track record of being able to heal these wounds, as Syria’s inspirational captain and goalkeeper Mosab Balhous explained.

“Football can help to some degree in restoring people’s spirits and social cohesion,” he told FIFA.com, “especially between the members of the team itself. Despite the situation, we have brushed off our personal suffering and achieved some excellent recent results. This has raised our morale and given great joy to all Syrians.”

The 29-year-old Balhous conceded that the lack of domestic matches has affected the side and things are especially grave for those players whose sole source of income is the beautiful game: “The suspension of play in Syria has affected both players and clubs,” explained the four-time league winner, “especially when it comes to the absence of financial support. Previously clubs relied on investors and subsequently the income generated by the fans themselves. Now that the supporters are not there, the clubs have been seriously affected.”

But Balhous remains confident that the national team will remain relatively unaffected: “Lots of the guys play abroad and that’s a positive for us. We have attended training camps in Egypt and Jordan that have helped bring the players together to help us through this crisis.”

With confidence and determination, the Syrian captain ended the interview with a fervent wish to see stability return to his homeland. Until it does, he has faith that football can continue to play a positive and powerful role in uniting his people. On the FIFA side, a request coming from the FIFA Vice-President and FIFA Executive Committee member H.R.H Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein to provide football equipment to Syrian children that are in refugee camps in Jordan will be discussed next March at the Finance Committee meeting.