If you were asked to describe the archetypal international footballer, chances are you would picture them playing at a world-famous club and enjoying the kind of idyllic life that inspires admiration and excitement among fans.
The fact is, however, that there are many players who give just as much for their national teams as the world’s top footballers, but who lead very different lives. Only too happy to represent their countries on the field of play, their day-to-day reality can be demanding, tough and, in some cases, dangerous. On top of all that, some also have the responsibility of fulfilling the dreams of their compatriots and winning games as a means of alleviating their suffering, albeit briefly.
One man very familiar with that reality is fleet-footed midfielder Osama Omari, one of the stars of the Syria’s overachieving national team and an example of the sacrifice that playing football in times of war involves.
A harsh ordeal
There appears to be no end in sight to the Syrian conflict, the dreadful consequences of which have been impacting on the everyday lives of the country’s inhabitants, its footballers included, since 2011.
“I was 19 when the war started and doing my military service,” Omari told FIFA.com. “You’d normally be expected to do two years but I’ve had to stay on because of the situation. A lot of my team-mates have left the country to sign for foreign clubs but I can’t do that. I’ve had to turn down a lot of offers because I have to finish my military service first.”
Omari, who plays for Al-Wahda, is far from the only Syrian footballer to have had his life turned upside down by the conflict, with many of his colleagues having had to adapt to circumstances in some way or other. “The league was very strong before,” he explained. “It was very different and teams could travel to every city. Many clubs have completely disappeared though, and lots of players have suffered the consequences.
“My cousin, Omar Khribin, who is also an international, had to leave his house because it was in the middle of one of the war zones. His family is in Damascus now and he has gone to play in Dubai.”
Success in adversity
Given those circumstances, what Syria have achieved in the AFC qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ seems nothing short of a miracle. Despite having been drawn in a daunting Group E, the Eagles of Qasioun are on the verge of advancing to the final group phase in the Asian Zone. Currently lying second in the section, a point adrift of the mighty Japan, the Syrians can seal their place in the final round in their last two games, against Cambodia and the Japanese in March.
Impressive in themselves, the results Omari and his team-mates have achieved are even more noteworthy when you consider the obstacles facing them before they even get onto the pitch. “We’re only able to get together as a squad two days before games, in the place where we’re playing,” explained the midfielder, who scored a brilliant hat-trick in the 5-2 defeat of Afghanistan last October. “Training camps? No chance! We each train with our clubs. It’s the same process for our home games, because we can’t play in Syria.”
Then there is the travelling. Describing Syria’s odyssey to Singapore last September, Omari said: “The Syria-based players met up in Damascus and took a bus to Beirut, where we caught a plane to Qatar before flying on to Malaysia. It was there that we played the only friendly we’ve had in this whole time. Then we went on to Singapore for the World Cup qualifier. It was such a long trip.” It was one worth making, however, with the Syrians emerging 2-1 victors.
Whatever the hurdles in their way, Omari and his colleagues are determined to smash them down. Though the hardships they face have brought the team together, they are not immune to what is going on around them. “We talk about the war in the dressing room, of course we do,” he revealed. “We talk about the sadness that the Syrian people have to endure every day. We all have our own opinions, but we all know that we’re playing for our country, for the Syrian flag, regardless of ideologies.”
The team’s togetherness on the pitch, a commodity sadly lacking in other aspects of Syrian life, has allowed them to harbour dreams of overcoming adversity and qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for the first time in the country’s history.
Contemplating that tantalising prospect and determined to make it happen, the 24-year-old Omari said: “The situation we’re going through means that we can’t have foreign coaches, with all the new ideas they can bring in. All we can do is pool the talent that Syrian football has always had with our spirit and determination. We all want the war to end as soon as possible, but for now we have to do what we can with what we have.”
With the experiences afflicting his people never far from his mind, Omari is nevertheless realistic and cautious about the task his side faces: to keep on winning despite it all.
“We don’t lack spirit or quality, but if we’re going to beat the likes of Japan, Iran and Australia in the final phase, we need to prepare better,” he explained. “We feel we can achieve something big and I hope we can do it.”
Should they go on to achieve the unlikely, Omari and his team-mates will bring long-overdue smiles to the faces of millions of their compatriots.