Syrians divided over campaign for Russia World Cup

New York: As Australia prepares to face Syria in two 2018 World Cup qualifiers in October, a star player is caught in a dilemma.

Syrian Firas al-Khatib will likely captain his country in the two play-off matches on October 5 and October 10, but his appearance comes with a moral price tag larger than the multimillion-dollar transfer fees usually associated with the sport.

Khatib boycotted the team for several years - refusing to play for a team that represented Bashar al-Assad's regime and whose military is accused of killing his fellow athletes. However, Syria's captain returned to the fold earlier this year, saying publicly he was concerned his boycott aligned him with anti-Assad forces that include the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

"Now, in Syria, [there are] many killers, not just one or two," he told ESPN in a recent interview. "I hate all of them. Whatever happens, 12 million Syrians will love me, [the] other 12 million will want to kill me."

Syria is awash with the blood of professional footballers - many indiscriminately killed during the six-year civil war, others arrested and tortured and disappeared by government forces. The Assad government has also been accused of using the national football team for propaganda, prompting leading players to quit the team.

According to figures released by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), an organisation that tracks deaths in Syria's civil war and used by the United Nations to supply data on casualties in the conflict, at least 264 individuals identified as athletes were killed in Syria between March 2011 and March 2017. At least 38 top-flight footballers are among the dead.

Syria's football team has been championed for a feelgood World Cup fairytale that will see it play Australia twice over the next few weeks in a bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The flipside of its against-all-odds story, however, is a horror movie.

An SNHR report claims almost all the footballers killed are victims of the Syrian government or its Iranian militia allies. Islamist extremists, Russian forces and various opposition groups have also contributed to the death toll. SNHR reports 478 documented cases of athletes subject to arbitrary arrest, most of them by government forces.

The list of dead footballers includes Ahmad Hesham Swedan, a 26-year-old with Syrian Premier League teams al-Karama and al-Wahda who was killed by shelling in Homs in 2012 and Jihad Qassab, a former captain of the national team who died inside Saidnaya military prison in Damascus in late 2016. Qassab, aged 41 when he died, led his club al-Karama to the 2006 Asian Champions League final. He was accused by authorities of making car bombs, an allegation he denied.

At least 13 footballers are missing after being arrested, including Jamal al-Refaie, a player for Premier League club Jableh, who was detained near the Syria-Lebanon border in 2015 and has not been heard from since.

Sport has long been used by oppressive regimes to promote incumbent governments and Assad's regime is no different. Syrian football officials attended a press conference in 2015 wearing T-shirts displaying Assad's image, interviews with coaching staff have drawn parallels between the team's World Cup progress and the regime's military victories, and players have publicly thanked Assad for his support.

"I no longer consider this to be a Syrian team, it's now representative of [the] Assad regime only," Suheil al-Ghazzi, a former fan from Damascus who now lives in Istanbul, told Fairfax Media.

"Football teams don't take sides in political debates, but we demand them to take the side of civilians [and] show solidarity to all victims regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or political view."

Ayman Kasheet is a former member of Syria's Olympic football team who fled to Sweden as a refugee three years ago and now works as a sports teacher and an activist with Amnesty International. Kasheet lodged a complaint to FIFA, football's world governing body, alleging Assad forces have committed war crimes against football players and that the Syrian FA is riddled with corruption.

"How can we consider that this team carries the same flag as the one on planes that killed children and civilians?" Kasheet told Fairfax Media.

The Syrian FA did not respond to a request for comment, but FIFA acknowledged claims by "several parties" regarding violence in the country.

A FIFA spokesperson said development funds to the Syrian FA had been blocked in accordance with international sanctions.

"As a sport governing body we also realise that these alleged actions go far beyond the domain of sporting matters in a situation where the whole country is mired in civil war," the FIFA spokesperson said.

Wounds, however, may be difficult to heal. Supporting Syria against Australia on its road to next year's World Cup - ironically hosted by Russia, whose government supports Assad and whose military has been implicated in the killings - will remain difficult for many fans.

"The team has only showed support for the one person who is responsible for killing nearly a million [people]," Ghazzi said.

"Syria's football team could have been a tool for reconciliation like Iraq [in the 2007 Asian Cup] and the South Africa rugby team in 1995, but they chose only the mass murderer's side. I would never support them."

This story Syrians divided over campaign for Russia World Cup first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.