“When the enemy comes and wants to kill you, what will you do? You fight. That’s normal. I want to save myself. If one bad man comes to kill me, I won’t say ‘okay come’. I will kill him.”
Fajer Ebrahim looks you in the eye, bangs his fist on the table as he says those last four words, and gives a taut smile. It isn’t the smile of an assured man. Rather, it reeks of helplessness. The 55-year-old coach of the Syrian national team insists he wants to talk football, not politics. But so closely intertwined have the two been in Syria’s recent past, it is impossible to talk about one without delving into the other.
It’s a complicated world, Syrian football. The eight-year war has reduced most cities to rubble, left almost half-a-million dead according to Human Rights Watch, and the life expectancy in the country has fallen by 15 years to 55. Football, the country’s national sport, isn’t untouched either. Dozens of footballers have died, an entire generation of youth players has been wiped off and stadiums were reportedly turned into military bases. It has turned fans against their heroes, pitted teammates against each other and, at times, players against their coaches. In spite of this, Syria came close to weaving a fairytale like few others. The Qasioun Nosour (Assyrians), as their national team is called, fell agonizingly short of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup — losing by the closest of margins to Australia in a two-legged playoff.
Under Ebrahim, they will launch their bid for the 2022 World Cup away to the Philippines on September 5, when the Asian qualifiers get underway. But their road to Qatar began, rather improbably, here in Ahmedabad last week.
Syria were one of the four teams competing in the Intercontinental Cup – others being North Korea, Tajikistan and hosts India. Ebrahim used the tournament to test a completely new bunch of players; one final look at the players before the serious business will begin in a couple of months. “In the circumstances we had during the last qualification campaign, we did very well… we did very well,” Ebrahim says. “It means we have quality players and good motivation.”
Quality has never been Syria’s problem. The country’s clubs have been a consistent threat in Asian club competitions, especially in the first decade of this century. Al Jaish, from Damascus, won the AFC Cup in 2004, beating city rivals Al Wahda in an all-Syrian final. Aleppo’s Al-Ittihad repeated the feat in 2010 while Homs-based Al Karamah were the runners up in the 2006 AFC Champions League and 2009 AFC Cup. Crowds in excess of 30-40,000 filled the stadiums to watch the players who were in demand across Asia and Europe. “We had fantastic football at that time,” Ebrahim, who was Syria’s coach from 2006 to 2010 as well, says. His tone turns sombre as he adds: “(But) during the war, everything changed.”
In 2011, a peaceful uprising against Syria president Bashar al-Assad over issues like increasing unemployment, corruption and a lack of political freedom turned into a full-scale civil war, which still hasn’t ended.
Dropping on priority list
As the cities got destroyed and casualties multiplied, football dropped drastically on the list of priorities. “You have to save yourself first. You have to support your army, your government. Everyone was fighting for something. I was fighting for football. My son was fighting for the Army. Others fought as teachers, workers… We all fight because it wasn’t easy,” Ebrahim, who is from Damascus, says. “It was war, everyone was afraid of what will happen. That is normal, I am not a hero. You are afraid for yourself, your family. But you have to fight. You have to be strong.”
Being strong wasn’t easy, especially in the face of death. Ebrahim says he watched on helplessly as several footballers he knew died during those turbulent times. The ones who survived found themselves in the middle of an ideological battle — the political differences had split Syrian football and left indelible marks on the dressing room. Ebrahim is an unabashed follower of the country’s president and, in 2015, walked into a news conference wearing a t-shirt of a smiling Assad. “For me, he’s the best man in the world. He fought all terrorists and saved Syria, not himself. He saved the country, the people. Great man,” Ebrahim says.
But not all his players felt the same way. In fact, the country’s two biggest players stood against the Assad regime. In 2012, Omar al-Somah – one of Asia’s best strikers – waved the Syrian opposition flag after a West Asian Football Federation Championship match against Kuwait as a protest against Assad’s policies. He spent five years in exile and played club football in Saudi Arabia, Syria’s regional rival. His teammate, Firas al-Khatib, regarded as Syria’s best player of all time, said in 2012 he wouldn’t play for the national team until the government stopped bombing the civilians.
In 2017, both returned to the national team. The government granted them amnesties, with Reuters quoting a government policy “to pardon any Syrians who joined the opposition unless they have blood on their hands.”
The dressing-room divide wasn’t Syria’s only hurdle. The war, Ebrahim says, brought their football programme to a standstill. Syria’s domestic structure before the war broke out was well defined: 14 clubs from various corners of the country played home and away. Each of them had a football school, with most having up to 200 trainees aged between 6 and 12. The youth leagues were divided into three age groups — under-14, under-16 and under-18 and like the senior teams, they played matches every week. But after the war broke out, the system collapsed. “We lost an entire generation of young footballers. Some died, some did not have anywhere to play football. That’s normal in war. Leagues for youth teams stopped that time. Most coaches had no team to coach,” Ebrahim says.
There is genuine concern among Syrian coaches and players that there is no one to follow the current generation of players, who entered the system just before the war broke out. “We started focussing on grassroots again two years ago so maybe in five years, we will have a new group of young players,” Ebrahim says.
The national team’s problems were compounded after FIFA no longer deemed the country safe to host international matches. They were forced to look for shelter elsewhere, crisscrossing across the continent — from Oman to Jordan to Malaysia to Qatar and even Turkey — in search of a new ‘home’. “Also some players died. It’s war. A lot of players I knew died. I know a lot of players who fought against the government. That happens, it’s normal. But we accept everything,” Ebrahim adds.
The new normal
What strikes you is the number of times Ebrahim says ‘it’s normal’ to describe the situation that is anything but. The silver lining, if it can be seen as one, was the national league never stopped. “We played sometimes in just one or two states but it did not stop,” he says. “Now, 95 percent Syria is safe, Alhamdulillah (thank god). Now, we can play anywhere except for one state – Idlib. There are problems there even now. When we are finished with the war in this state, everything will be back to normal in Syria.”
For the first time in our conversation, Ebrahim uses the word ‘normal’ in a positive, more normal context. The priority now, Ebrahim says, is to restart the youth programme. “If you don’t care for grassroots there will be no football in the future.”
The money to fund the grassroots programme, though, is hard to come by because of the international sanctions imposed on the country. There’s barely any money to support the sport, in fact, Ebrahim says. The average pay per week for a top-tier player in Syria is Rs 3,000 (in contrast, the average pay for a national team player in India is between Rs 1 to Rs 1.5 lakh).
Yet, Ebrahim says football’s the best way to make a good life. Around 80 percent of the team in Ahmedabad, Ebrahim says, is made up of players who play their club football in Syria, which is a departure from the past when most national team players plied their trade abroad. All of them were travelling outside their country for the first time. “Football provides them the best environment to make money. This is the time a lot of clubs in Syria and outside are looking for new players. So they want to prove themselves. Marketing, advertisements… you can be very famous.”
The players are icons in their own right. Al Somah and Al Khatib are by far the biggest stars along with goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma. “He (Alma) is a very strong man. Very, very cute,” gushes Ahmad Ghassan, who studies computer engineering at Marwadi University. When the Syrian league returned to port city Latakia, Ghassan’s hometown, after five years in 2017, thousands swarmed the streets. “There were 10,000 people outside the stadium and double of that inside. Everyone was missing the sport. And when the league started again, everybody went crazy,” he says.
There are occasional reports of bombings outside stadiums and players losing their lives. Just last month, 27-year-old Abdul Baset al-Sarout from Homs, who rose to fame as a goalkeeper, died of wounds sustained in battle with government forces. Ebrahim, as he often does during the interview, calls all of this ‘normal.’ “But football helped me survive the war. And so many others as well.” He isn’t the only one who sought comfort in the sport as war waged elsewhere in the country. “If there was war outside, they played football inside — at schools, their homes,” defender Tamer Haj Mohammad says. “Football kept people alive. But Syria is getting better now. It’s safe.”
After years of death and destruction, the country is gradually getting back on its feet. And a ball is never too far.