You could be forgiven for knowing little about Syrian football. An unremarkable record on the field internationally and a domestic league that does not even have a website would not be high on the agenda of a fanatic football fan. With the country firmly in the spotlight on daily worldwide news and allegations of chemical warfare, this piece aims to give you an insight of how corrosive the regime’s affect has been to football.
The Syrian Football League was founded in 1966 as football took a firmer hold across Asia and the Arab world. Later becoming known as the Syrian Premier League its format followed a traditional European system running on the same calendar. In almost fifty years of existence the Championship title has been dominated by teams from the capital; Damascus, the largest city, Aleppo and the third largest city Homs. Al_Jaish SC Damascus have taken eleven titles ahead of Al-Karamah SC (Homs) with eight and Al-Ittihad Aleppo with six. The fifteen other titles have been shared amongst seven other teams of which some no longer exist.
Politics and war have taken their toll on Syrian football and on no fewer than six occasions has the season’s league been cancelled; five times this occurred between 1970 and 1981 but most famously the season was suspended midway during 2010/2011 due to the outbreak of the Syrian uprising. Football has been inextricably linked to the tragic war; stadiums were allegedly used in 2011 as makeshift prisons by the Syrian government to detain protesters. More recently a local football stadium was bombed during a game with the mortar shell landing just off the pitch and injuring players on the bench. Perhaps most interestingly a football star gave up his career to lead Syrian rebels in Homs. Abdul Baset Al-Sarout, a goalkeeper of Al-Karamah SC, has survived assassination attempts and been fuelled by the memory of his brother and uncle that were murdered by Syrian security forces. Abdul is a hero to the opposition but has earned a huge bounty on his head.
The 2011-2012 domestic season saw two groups of eight begin with the top four from each group advancing to a Championship group and the bottom four entering the dreaded Relegation group to fight for survival in the top flight. Damascus based Al-Shurta took the Championship title in style for only the second time in their history. With ten points between them and second place, with it came a lucrative spot in the Asian Champions League. They followed this up with back-to-back titles, taking the 2012-2013 Championship by just four points.
While the Syrian Premier League attracts few foreign players to its shores and even fewer international fans, its expats are starting to impress in the powerhouse leagues of Asia. The biggest name in Syrian football is Firas Al Khatib, a striker that boasts thirty-one goals in fifty-one games for his country as well as a scoring record Alan Shearer would be proud of, regularly hitting the back of the net across the leagues of Iraq, Qatar and Kuwait. In 2012 he trialled with Nottingham Forest and when China’s giants Shanghai Shenhua came calling this year, Al Khatib knew he had huge shoes to fill, replacing the likes of the masters of Sulk, Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba. Already his ratio is better than his predecessors with five goals in ten games. However a huge blow for the country saw Al Khatib retire from the national football team in 2012 citing political reasons, that no doubt arose from the uprising.
Turkish-based Sanharib Malki Saban was born in Eqypt but raised in Belgium and has spent the majority of his career scoring freely for top-flight teams including Lokeren and Roda JC in the Flemish nation. Despite only a handful of games for Syria, he could prove a worthy replacement for Al Khatib along with Bahrain-based Ahmad Al Douni, who has already bagged six goals in nine games for his nation.
The team’s veteran and most-capped player for Syria is Ali Diab, a solid centre back plying his trade in Iraq for Duhok and collecting ninety-four national appearances in the process.
A big improvement in the quality of domestic Syrian players has spawned a small but noted rise in the national team’s performance. Syria joined FIFA in 1937 and from 1958 to 1961 amalgamated with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic Football Team. Unfortunately for Syria, FIFA decided their results during this period should be added to Egypt’s. Sepp Blatter would have been proud. The team has never qualified for the World Cup but perhaps will never have had a better chance than the 2014 Asian Football Confederation Qualifiers. Awarded a bye into the second round in 2011 this would prove to be their last. Winning comfortably 6-1 on aggregate against Tajikistan, Syria was alleged to have fielded an ineligible player. George Mourad, a striker with a solid career playing in leagues across Sweden, Italy, Holland and China, appeared for Sweden’s Olympic team in 2003 and 2005 and despite being born in Syria and being a national, FIFA’s rules had been deemed broken. With the current ongoing turmoil and war in the nation, its governing body claimed the actions were politically motivated, but few came to their support.
Despite this setback there is some optimism at a time when the people need it the most. ‘The Red Eagles’ have recorded wins against Jordan and Iraq on their way to winning the 2012 West Asian Football Federation Championship. This will be a welcome boost to their 2015 Asian Football Confederation Cup qualification that pits them against Jordan, Oman and Singapore in the group stages.
The future of Syrian football appears to be at the unfortunate mercy of its political status. With all focus on the uprising that looks at no end soon, football will try go to undisturbed in the background, passively flying it’s flag with any small improvements seen as huge steps considering the nation’s predicament.