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Assad FC: FIFA is normalising Syria's brutal regime Open in fullscreen

Gareth Browne

Assad FC: FIFA is normalising Syria's brutal regime

Assad will likely try to present himself as Syria's unifying factor [AFP]

Date of publication: 7 September, 2017

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Comment: In the eyes of Fifa, the Syrian football team is politically neutral. But turning a blind eye to politics is in itself a political action, writes Gareth Browne.
One of George Orwell's most quoted quips is that "[Football] has nothing to do with fair play... it is war minus the shooting." 

But what happens when football, or any sport becomes a part of warfare? This is the case in Syria, where football has become an instrument of war. It's an integral part of an apparatus of oppression. And in it's current state, it is impossible to depoliticise the Syrian national football team.

Bill Shankly said: "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death", he added: "I can assure you it is much, much more important than that." Though the former Liverpool manager was undoubtedly enamoured with his sport, he was half joking when he said it.

What was truly implied was that football had become "too important" for many of its followers. Whether or not we welcome it, football is of global importance, the World Cup is far more than a sporting opportunity, it is as much about politics, economics and power as it is sporting prowess.

When it comes to an event like the world cup, and an organisation the size of Fifa, turning a blind eye to politics is in itself a political action. This was the case with Hitler's Munich Olympics in 1936 which attempted to portray a peaceful and tolerant Germany, rather than a country with a holocaust in full flow.

Given the opportunity to project from the platform of a football world cup, Assad likely won't bother with attempting to show Syria as free from conflict, but he will attempt to show himself to the world as Syria's unifying factor, rather than the true cause of conflict - as millions of Syrians see him. Allowing that to happen, means complicity with Assad. 
It is impossible to depoliticise the Syrian national football team
But in the eyes of Fifa, the Syrian football team are politically neutral, even "non-sectarian". This, though, is a disingenuous ethical position that ignores the inherently politicised nature of the game inside Syria.

It's a country where mere murmurings against the president go beyond seeing a player deselected, but are enough to seem them killed or forced to flee their homeland. To play for certain sides is to make a statement regarding who you support in one of the most polarising conflicts in recent history.
For the players caught in the quagmire, to play for the 
national team is to represent the Assad regime [AFP]

The danger and divides are not just theoretical. An investigation by ESPN highlighted at least 38 players from the top two divisions of the Syrian national league, killed by regime forces since the revolution began in 2011.

Perhaps football can bring even the most disparate of people together, but if that's the case, we must ask why no pro-opposition players feature in the team? For Firas al-Khatib, the team's dynamic headline grabbing striker, a recent return to the national team after several years of boycott was preceded by a humiliating climb down of his opposition stance.

He was forced to embrace the very values and leader that Syria's revolution had defined itself against. He was draped in the flag he had spent years marching against. His place in the national team an impossibility until he embraced the regime.

Now, the once outspoken talisman refuses to talk politics, as he says: "I can't talk, really. I want to talk. But I can't." This is not neutrality. Scores of Syrian football's top talent now sit in refugee camps in Turkey, or are attempting to rebuild their careers in Europe and elsewhere.

Fadi Dabbas, Vice President of the Syrian Football Association, told press earlier this year that the Syrian national team were playing for "our president".
Scores of Syrian football's top talent now sit in refugee camps in Turkey
If there were any doubt, a press conference in November 2015 saw the team paraded in front of the world's media with t-shirts featuring the the portrait of Assad himself. It's clear that for the players caught in the quagmire, to play for the national team is to do far more than represent a neutral team. It is to represent the Assad regime, and to participate in its activities of oppression and serves its propaganda.

Omar Al-Somah, who scored a last minute equalizer to keep the Syrian world cup campaign alive, hails from Deir az-Zour, currently under the control of Islamic State.

As the Syrian team took to the field, regime forces, supported by a host of foreign militias battled to break a three year siege. It is easy to get carried away with the spectacle of real life battles being carried out on the football field, but to do that with Syria is to passively support the Assad regime's narrative of the past six years; the world's media doing the dictator's work for him.

Whether or not Syria make it to the World Cup finals in Russia next year, is far from certain, they face a tough play off with Australia. Regardless, this is not a dream run, nor is it a fairytale success built amid the rubble of a broken country. For millions of Syrians it is the nightmare of the world forgetting their suffering and normalising the rule of Bashar al-Assad.

Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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