Crushed but for 120 min­utes united: qual­i­fier lets Syr­i­ans forget war

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines / News - Michael McGowan in Syd­ney and Na­dia Al Faour in Beirut

For a mo­ment on Tues­day, Ah­mad Mo­ham­mad Mo­ham­mad, a 19-yearold Syr­ian from Aleppo, was able to forget about the war.

The Syr­ian national foot­ball team bowed out of 2018 World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion after a 2-1 loss to Aus­tralia on Tues­day, after an un­likely run that saw them progress to a qual­i­fi­ca­tion play-off.

At a cafe in cen­tral Beirut, fans ex­pressed a mix­ture of dis­ap­point­ment and pride after the match.

“We’re crushed,” Mo­ham­mad said. “But the team man­aged to re­store our hon­our ... Who said we could’ve made it this far? God bless the play­ers for giv­ing us some­thing to get our minds off the war and death and de­struc­tion.”

Ex­cite­ment about the team’s run of suc­cess has been tem­pered by the coun­try’s com­plex po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. An es­ti­mated 400,000 Syr­i­ans have been killed and an­other 5.1 mil­lion dis­placed in a bru­tal six-year con­flict, and some Syr­i­ans say they can’t sup­port the national side be­cause of its en­thu­si­as­tic adop­tion by the dic­ta­tor Bashar al-As­sad.

But at the Ka3kaya Cafe, men in suits and univer­sity stu­dents skip­ping class smoked hookah pipes and tried to put pol­i­tics aside to fo­cus on a foot­ball match.

When star striker Omar Al Somah put Syria ahead with a sub­lime strike early in the first half, chants of “Al­lahu Ak­bar” could be heard all the way down one of Beirut’s busiest streets.

Man­agers had to nudge their mostly Syr­ian wait­ers away from the tele­vi­sion to serve ta­bles.

But when Syr­ian mid­fielder Mah­moud Al Mawas was dis­missed after re­ceiv­ing a sec­ond yel­low card, and then Aus­tralia’s Tim Cahill scored the win­ning goal deep into ex­tra time, the ex­cite­ment turned to dev­as­ta­tion.

Tarek Ziad al Kamesh, a 30-yearold Kur­dish waiter at Ka3kaya, broke down into tears.

“What can I say? I feel like I have a lump in my throat. This is suf­fo­cat­ing,” he said after the match. “This is all we had to look for­ward to. All eyes were on Syria and for the first time in a long time, it was on some­thing pos­i­tive.

“It seems it wasn’t meant for us this time. It seems like God didn’t want this to hap­pen, [but] for a mo­ment though, in this seven years of war, we were uni­fied.”

Fayez Awad Omar, a 32-yearold de­liv­ery driver and jan­i­tor from Hama, was more cir­cum­spect.

“Who isn’t upset? But who isn’t proud ei­ther?” he said. “I have noth­ing but re­spect for the play­ers. So much grat­i­tude for be­ing able to get this far.”

Inside the sta­dium in Syd­ney, a large and vo­cal con­tin­gent of Syr­ian fans kept up their sup­port through­out the match. But at­tempts by some to un­furl a “Free Syria” flag inside the sta­dium were banned by po­lice and sta­dium of­fi­cials.

Be­fore the match, Syr­ian com­mu­nity lead­ers, refugees, and Aus­tralia-based refugee and hu­man rights ac­tivists staged a protest out­side the sta­dium against the As­sad regime.

Mark Goud­kamp from Syria Sol­i­dar­ity Aus­tralia said there had been “taunt­ing” from some Syr­ian fans, but there were no re­ports of clashes. The pro­test­ers pre­pared a large flag as­so­ci­ated with Syr­ian rebels and un­furled it out­side the sta­dium.

How­ever, Goud­kamp said they were told by Aus­tralian fed­eral po­lice of­fi­cers that they couldn’t bring the flag inside. Signs at the sta­dium en­trance showed that only the Aus­tralian flag and the Syr­ian national flag – which many Syr­i­ans see as as­so­ci­ated with the As­sad regime – would be al­lowed into the match.

Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion Aus­tralia’s terms of en­try state that no “po­lit­i­cal flags or em­blems” are al­lowed inside in­ter­na­tional matches. An FFA spokesman said the Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion’s rules stip­u­late that “only the of­fi­cial national flag from the two com­pet­ing na­tions may be brought into a match venue”.

“These flags must also be within the size re­stric­tions out­lined by the match venue,” the spokesman said.

But Goud­kamp said the Syr­ian national flag had neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions for many Syr­i­ans.

“For a lot of peo­ple, that flag stands for bomb­ing and star­va­tion,” he said. “We tried to ar­gue that the flag rep­re­sents a huge num­ber of Syr­i­ans, but they ob­vi­ously just didn’t lis­ten.”

In­stead, they tried to smug­gle ban­ners and scarves into the sta­dium. Footage posted on so­cial me­dia showed sta­dium se­cu­rity evict­ing pa­trons who held up a “Free Syria” ban­ner dur­ing the match.

“We were like whack-a-moles,” Goud­kamp said. “A cou­ple of young guys held up a ‘Free Syria’ ban­ner and one was es­corted out. An­other tried to hold up a sign about Syr­ian refugees and they were kicked out.”

It seems like God didn’t want this to hap­pen, [but] for a mo­ment though, in this seven years of war, we were uni­fied.

Pho­to­graph: Louai Be­shara/AFP/Getty Im­ages

The World Cup qual­i­fier against Aus­tralia gave Syr­i­ans a chance to unite be­hind their national team.

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