Muhannad Al-Fakeer nods grimly when asked how his journey to Mumbai was. In recent years, travelling abroad from his homeland, Syria, has been a problem. He is in Mumbai to meet his colleagues for a FIFA technical director’s workshop. This time around though, the reason for his travel worries was different, and much more benign.“Sometimes it’s raining, sometimes it’s snowing,” he says.
“You have to drive to Beirut and then fly down. That drive can be unpredictable now because of the weather.”
A few years ago, with the civil war at its peak, the trip to Lebanon or to any other neighbouring nation was potentially life-threatening. Life in Syria was a daily question mark, as the war-torn Middle Eastern nation had come to a standstill. But football hadn’t. “At no point did our national League stop,” he says. “It was only two months long. All matches happened in Damascus and Lattakia because they were the only two safe cities. There were little to no people watching from the stands because it wasn’t always safe, but the matches did happen.”
That was a phase (2013 to 2015) in which the country suffered the most, and so did its favourite sport. Now, Al-Fakeer asserts, is when life and football is rebuilding.The war had forced as many as eight million to flee the country – taking with it a chunk of its footballing talent. The ones that stayed back did so at their own peril. According to the Independent, former national team captain Jihad Qassab’s body was identified in 2014 while another footballer, Zakaria Youssef, was “killed in government shelling in 2012.”
“There was also one player was hit while training, and so many coaches and officials have lost their lives during that period,” says Al-Fakeer, who himself had to leave home and stay at his parent’s house for five years during the war.
It’s during that spell that, with a pool of around 50 players plying their trade abroad, that Syria mounted a brave attempt at securing a spot at the 2018 World Cup. The trouble then was convincing some of the players to actually don the national jersey.
It had become a major point of contention since a lot of people thought the national team was used as government propaganda by President Bashar Al-Assad. Playing for the Syrian national team was deemed equivalent to playing for Al-Assad and his oppressive regime. “I’m afraid, I’m afraid,” captain Firas Al-Khatib told ESPN after deciding to compete for the national team for World Cup qualifiers. “Whatever happens, 12 million Syrians will love me. Other 12 million will want to kill me.”
Firas wasn’t the only one.“There were quite a few players who were scared for their lives before the playoffs against Australia,” Al-Fakeer says. “Our federation President had to personally meet some of them and convince them to play.”
When the playoffs did happen, in Malaysia (the adopted home for the Syrian national team), Al-Fakeer asserts “over 30,000 people” came to the main squares of all cities to watch the screenings of the match. “We were unlucky that we didn’t qualify for the World Cup because that would have sent a big message out to the world about us,” Al-Fakeer says. “We like football and we like to live fully. Not everyone in Syria hates Assad; that’s more of a Western media perception.”
Coming so close to qualifying for a World Cup for the very first time, especially at a time when the country was desperate for a distraction, has brought the war-ravaged Syrians together.“For those 90 minutes and much more, people were united, and could be united.”
And so, steadily, efforts are being made to rebuild football.The domestic league is now on in full flow, with 12 of the 14 cities in Syria (two are still ravaged by the war) hosting matches. Yet there’s still a long way to go. The team did not receive any funding from either FIFA or the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for eight years and most of the stadia lie in ruins due to the war.
“Our infrastructure is badly damaged, but we’ve still managed to start the youth league and women’s league,” he says.
Al-Fakeer asserts the federation is looking forward to the prospective friendly against India, but it’ll be a while till international football can return to Syrian shores. Life in refuge has been kind to the squad (“We’ve never lost since we shifted base to Malaysia,” Al-Fakeer says). Soon though, he hopes, the country’s biggest tool of peace will come home.