Football has an incredible way of transcending political conflict and uniting opposing groups. Soldiers halted the sheer barbarism of war to play football in no man’s land during World War I, there were even football leagues in Prisoner of War camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. The war against Islamic State in Syria has claimed thousands of lives and has people living in fear but football still thrives.
The Syrian top division, the Syrian Premier League, is made up of 16 teams, including one from current war zone Aleppo, with Al-Jaish being the most recent champions. The fact that the league even exists is amazing and to see it doing so well is representative of the will power and resilience of the Syrian people.
In Syria, there are constant reminders of war. The army patrol the stadium entrances and just four years ago Youssef Suleiman, a player for Al-Wathbah was killed by a mortar when preparing for a game. The danger is constant.
In such a hostile country that has been ravaged by war, football is one of the last things people would expect to continue. One of the reasons it has survived is because the Syrian people need something to help forget about the war. Their mentality is that the war shouldn’t stop them enjoying something that they love.
Not only is there big support for Syrian football but fans of the clubs have formed ultra groups; groups of hardcore fans who live for their club. These groups of fans travel around the country to away games despite the omnipresent danger that any sort of travel around Syria brings.
Due to the violent nature of ultra groups, the Syrian league demanded a list of members of all active ultra groups. Naturally, the fans refused and instead joined together to form the Union of Syrian Ultras in a show of solidarity even amongst rival fans. Football, therefore, has succeeded in uniting Syrians regardless of political affiliation and in a world where people are killing each other for political beliefs its extremely refreshing.
It isn’t just at club level that Syrian football is thriving either, the Syrian national team have recently beaten the likes of China, a country which has invested billions in trying to build itself into a nation of footballing success. They have also drawn with teams such as South Korea and Japan, nations that regularly qualify for World Cups.
The team are unable to play in their home country due to the civil war so are forced to play home games in Malaysia. Being flexible for football arrangements is something Syrians are used to though after six years of war.
In the capital of Damascus this is evident, one soldier swaps his AK-47 for a whistle every weekend for 90 minutes and then picks it up again afterwards and goes off to resume battle. The war has become involved in every aspect of Syrian life and football offers a sense of freedom for those looking to escape the war.
Most recently, however, the Syrian national team pulled off an emphatic stoppage-time draw against Iran, who have already qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This puts Syria, ranked 80th in the world, through to the AFC Playoff where they will play Australia (45th) for a place in the World Cup finals. For a nation torn apart by conflict and civilians fleeing their own country due to the brutality of war, this is incredible.
The players, however, have little opportunity to flee as the government controls their travel documents. They fear that their family will be harmed or jailed if they attempt to leave the country. Some players have had their family members arrested or killed by Assad’s brutal regime.
As a nation, Syria has shown solidarity in the face of adversity and demonstrated not only to Islamic State but to the whole world that a war will not stop them playing and watching the sport they love. The war isn’t going anywhere and fans are forced to adapt but they do so remarkably.