Amidst the chaotic political situation in Syria, one could be forgiven for presuming football is the last thing on the minds of many Syrians. Yet on Wednesday the Syrian Under-23 national football team travels to Bahrain where a victory would put them just one match away from qualifying for the London 2012 Olympic Games football tournament.
Sport has not been immune from the events of the past year in Syria. While the Syrian Premier League was suspended in 2011, matches have resumed, albeit with a large number of postponements. Syria was the only nation of twenty-two Arab countries not to send a team of athletes to the 2011 Pan Arab Games in Doha at protest of the Arab League’s suspension of their membership. Given the turbulence in the country, perhaps it was just as well that Syria were disqualified by FIFA in August 2011 from qualification for the 2014 World Cup after they fielded an ineligible player, George Murad, against Tajikistan.
But practically from nowhere and against all odds the Syrian Under-23 football side is making waves. A stunning 2-1 victory over group favourites Japan in early February, courtesy of a spectacular last-minute strike from Ahmad Al Salih, has catapulted Syria to the top of their qualification group and arguably installed them as favourites to qualify for the Olympics. Syria need to beat Bahrain this week and Malaysia next month, both of whom they have already defeated in this campaign, to guarantee their place in London, with South Korea and one of Uzbekistan or United Arab Emirates (at the expense of Australia) the other likely qualifiers from the region.
The situation is unprecedented given Syria’s previous lack of footballing pedigree, having never qualified for a World Cup or even got past the first round of the AFC Asian Cup. Even if they slip up and Japan top the group, Syria will still have further chances to reach the Olympics via playoffs first with other second place Asian teams and then potentially against Senegal in Coventry, venue for the AFC-CAF playoff.
However the victory over Japan, played on neutral territory in Amman, Jordan due to the unrest in Syria, also demonstrated the potential consequences of Syrian qualification for the Games. Although there were no direct clashes, the match was overshadowed by the politics of the conflict, with many Syrian fans opposed to President Bashar Assad cheering on Japan, while supporters of the regime chanted, "Long live, Bashar”. Should Syria qualify, it opens up the possibility of demonstrators opposed to the Syrian government and its violent repression descending on the London Olympics to protest against the regime, were the crisis not to be resolved by the summer.
The possibility of the Great Britain football team playing against Syria during the Olympics is both intriguing and sure to be immersed in political overtones. The current squad is drawn from all over Syria, from Damascus and Aleppo to Hama and Homs, cities at the sharp end of the current struggles. Both have been subject to army bombardment and fierce crackdowns in recent months.
Aside from the likely protests, the level of attention lavished on this group of young Syrians playing football in the UK at a global event would inevitably be monumental, with their actions and words under intense scrutiny. They have the potential to become the focus for a rallying cry against the Syrian government for opponents of the regime. Will the players present a united front or would political divisions manifest themselves in their performances and words? Would any players defect or speak out against their government with the world media watching and listening? What would the consequences of any resistance be?
On the other hand, a Syrian Olympic football team might represent the manifestation of sport overcoming violence and politics, possessing the ability to become a force for good. Representative as they are of all areas of Syria and its ethnic diversity, they could provide Syria a chance to show that sectarianism can be overcome and stoke a unity overcoming political chaos, violence and division.
There are distinct parallels with Libya, whose football team’s qualification for 2012 African Cup of Nations was set against the backdrop of civil war. Their impressive performance at the tournament presents a powerful example of revolution and unrest conspiring to unite, inspire and embolden a football team. In turn the exploits of the Libyan footballers offered some measure of respite, joy and unity to a beleaguered nation suffering the effects of war.
Thus it may not be simply coincidence that this upturn in performance for the Syrians is happening in the midst of national upheaval. There are indeed similarities with the form of other Arab nations’ football sides since the start of the Arab Spring. With the exception of Egypt, every North African football side (Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Sudan and Morocco) saw their results improve in 2011 since the outbreak of their particular versions of the Arab Spring, compared with the year prior.
Through the power of experiencing seismic events at home, footballers in these countries have shown the ability to work together during tough periods towards a common goal and success. While their country is being torn apart, the Syrian Under-23 team is clearly fostering a sense of unity and strength through adversity. The results on the field are testament to this.
One player who is highly unlikely to feature is Abdelbasset Saroot, 20-year old goalkeeper for Syria's Under-23 team, but now a leader of the revolution and a marked man on the run from the Syrian authorities in battle-scarred Homs.
Saroot recently told Al Jazeera, "It's worth it. I'm free. I've travelled all over the world to play football. But freedom is not just about me or about travelling. What about everyone else? Freedom is a big word. It's about freedom of speech and freedom of opinion. If you see something wrong being done, freedom is being able to talk about it.”
Having already lost his home, brother and friends, and survived three attempts on his life, his story will doubtless be told during the summer if his Syrian teammates are competing in the Olympics, whether he is alive or not.