Young Syrians responding to adversity

Times are tough for Syria’s footballers. The country’s bloody civil war, which has been raging for more than three years and has resulted in the suspension of the national league since the 2010/11 season, has forced them to move to neighbouring countries to continue their careers.

Despite the unrest and the catastrophic consequences it has had for the nation, the Syrians still managed to win the 2012 West Asian Football Federation Championship, held in Kuwait. That unlikely achievement provided a source of inspiration for the country’s U-17 side, who last year qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015.

The Syrians will be making only their second appearance in the competition, and while their journey to the world finals was an improbable one, coach Mohammad Al Attar puts it all down to some solid team virtues: “There was a real sense of togetherness between the players and the coaching staff, and that was thanks to the work we did on a psychological level.”

Al Attar’s side owe their place in Chile to a strong showing at the 2014 AFC U-16 Championship, which was hosted by Thailand. Drawn into a daunting group against Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Syrians kicked off with back-to-back draws before stunning the Iranians with a 2-1 win to check into the last eight. An emphatic 5-2 defeat of Uzbekistan then ensured them a place at the U-17 world finals for the first time since Korea Republic 2007.

Reflecting on the difficulties faced by his side in the run-up to the continental tournament, Al Attar said: “Our preparations weren’t very smooth at all and we weren’t able to play a single international friendly. We had to make do with a training camp in Kuwait, during which we played two local teams. The Syrian FA did all it could to organise matches abroad but it just didn’t happen.”

Shrugging off their problematic build-up, the young Syrians surpassed themselves in Thailand and brought a little joy into the lives of their fellow countrymen back home. “Our results had a positive impact on our people, who have been through a lot of suffering,” said the 46-year-old, who also coaches club side Al Taliya.

A hazardous path Many Syrian players and fans have been killed or wounded as a result of the internal strife that has beset the nation. In spite of the bloodshed, Al Attar and his defiant charges are determined to fly the Syrian flag high on the world stage and make their mark.

“Life goes on, whatever the circumstances,” he said. “Sport and football in particular help take people’s minds off the problems our country is facing, and in qualifying for the World Cup we’ve allowed them to think about something else for a while.”

As the war rages on back home, Al Attar and his backroom staff have had to work hard on keeping the morale of their young players high.

“We’ve really focused on the psychological side of things during our preparations,” he said. “During the training camps we tried to take the players away from events at home, which allowed us to get results.

“Our sole aim when we were in Thailand was to achieve something big for Syria. We thought about nothing else. We put the situation in our country to one side. If we hadn’t, it would have had a negative impact on the whole squad.”

Future goals Buoyed by their fourth place at the AFC U-16 Championship, the Syrians are heading to Chile with the aim of bettering their performance at the 2007 world finals, where they went down 3-1 to England in the last 16.

Acknowledging that the situation has not improved back home, Al Attar said: “The circumstances are the same, but that won’t stop us from working hard and preparing the best we can. We’re dealing with things by training in areas that are safe.”

Rounding off on an optimistic note, he said: “Qualifying for the World Cup has been a great achievement as far as I’m concerned. That’s why we’re ready to face everything that’s thrown at us. We’re going to do our very best to make sure we get noticed in Chile and put all the problems that we’re going through to one side.”

As Al Attar has already proved, he has the experience needed to overcome hurdles and steel his players for the challenge that lies ahead, when they will once again seek to bring a little sunlight into the lives of their long-suffering compatriots.