|On October 10, the Syrian Arab Republic national football team – “Team Syria” – will compete in its second match against Australia at Sydney’s Allianz Stadium to qualify for its first ever World Cup tournament. Syria’s surprising rise to the World Cup qualifiers has aroused conflicting emotions among Syrians and has allowed the Assad government to project an image of a united and robust nation on the world stage. Yet beneath this carefully crafted facade remains a team and a population deeply controlled by the Syrian government – which considers unwavering political support as a prerequisite to membership. In order to truly foster unity and reconciliation in Syria, however, every citizen must be afforded the right and opportunity to belong, irrespective of political inclinations. But in Syria, football is a microcosm of the challenges to overcoming societal divides and achieving nationwide reconciliation.
While millions of Syrians were elated by Team Syria’s unexpected success throughout the qualifying rounds, the occasion left many others conflicted and disillusioned. On social media, some Syrians even posted that they would rather root for the opposing team than support Team Syria. The chilled response was largely due to the frustration over the team’s de facto leadership: the Assad government, which has leveraged the appeal of sports players in Syria to manipulate public opinion and quell dissent.
Rules of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) state that member associations must be independent and avoid any political interference. Yet, during the conflict, players have been compelled to march in pro-Assad rallies, wear T-shirts bearing the president’s image, and make pro-government statements to the press. Criticism of the government is strictly prohibited among athletes, and those who defy this unwritten rule have been reportedly killed, forcibly disappeared, or tortured to death. Reports also suggest several national team players have been compelled to play against their will by government threats to harm detained family members or loved ones.