SPORT

The Syrian Team Playing The Socceroos Are Pawns In Assad's Evil Propaganda War

Why one Syrian man has no choice but to protest.

10/10/2017 5:23 PM AEDT | Updated 10/10/2017 5:23 PM AEDT
Lai Seng Sin / Reuters
It's complicated.

The first checkpoint stop was a surprise and a little unnerving. Under heavy questioning during the second checkpoint stop, Obay Al-Akul's legs turned to jelly and his life flashed before his eyes.

Al-Akul knew he could be whisked off to a detention camp, never to be seen again. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's brutal mercenaries had done the same to countless people like him at checkpoints.

Their 'crime'? Like 37-year-old Al-Akul, they just lived in the wrong part of Damascus, an area known to be sympathetic to revolutionaries.

So Al-Akul fled. He had no choice. With his elderly mother, he headed for the Lebanese border. The two of them spent 19 months in refugee camps before arriving in Australia, where he re-united with his sister.

SAEED KHAN via Getty Images
Syria at training in Sydney this week.

That was three years ago. The Syrian Civil War continues to rage on, six-and-a-half years since it started as a series of protests against the hardline rule of Bashar al-Assad during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. At least half a million Syrians have been killed.

Today, Obay Al-Akul lives in western Sydney and works in an administration job in a law firm. And on Tuesday night, he'll be out at the Socceroos versus Syria FIFA World Cup qualifier, protesting a team he views as pawns for al-Assad's dictatorship.

"Assad is using the Syrian football team as a public relations exercise, while continuing to bombard civilians in parts of the country that are not in his hands," Al-Akul told HuffPost Australia.

So are the Syrian football team pawns for Assad?

U.S. sports site espn.com ran a fantastic story by sports journalist Steve Fainaru about the Syrian team a little earlier this year. The story argued that the Syrian national team represents "not a unified vision of Syria but the benign face of a ruthless dictatorship".

"In November 2015 in Singapore, the head coach, a player and the team spokesman showed up to a prematch news conference wearing T-shirts bearing Assad's photo," Fainaru wrote.

"The coach, Fajer Ebrahim, used the World Cup platform to proclaim Assad the 'best man in the world'."

Obay Al-Akul claims that certain team members said "Assad is our idol" after Syria recently beat Iran, in a crucial game that kept their World Cup qualification hopes alive.

HOW THE QUALIFICATION WORKS

Asia gets four-and-a-half of the 32 spots at the FIFA World Cup.

Four spots go to the top two teams in each of two qualifying groups.

Australia and Syria each missed automatic qualification, finishing third in their groups.

They are now playing each other over two legs (the first leg was 1-1) at Syria's de facto home venue of Malaysia).

The second leg is Tuesday night in Sydney.

The winner plays another two-leg series against the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF (North, Central American and Carrribean) Federation. That looks like being Panama but could be Honduras or even the U.S.A.

Win that series and you're into the World Cup.

But not all Syrian players are flag-wavers for the Assad regime. The ESPN story essentially argued that while some of the team fit that description, others play out of fear, effectively coerced into playing to protect their families, and themselves.

Much of the story focused on Firas al-Khatib, a star player who boycotted the Syrian team for many years after Assad's forces bombed and starved his home town.

Recently, al-Khatib -- an accomplished player who currently plays in the Kuwaiti league -- rejoined his national team. He will play against the Socceroos.

ESPN portrayed 34-year-old al-Khatib as a deeply conflicted man, who was keenly aware that the opposition to Assad now includes al-Qaeda and ISIS. For some time now, there have been no "good" sides on this war.

HuffPost Australia contacted Fainaru to ask whether he believed al-Khatib rejoined the national team of his own volition.

"I don't have any information that he was or was not coerced, but the pressure he was under to play -- or not play -- was the most intense personal dilemma I've ever witnessed," Fainaru said.

"Firas is an incredibly thoughtful person, and I take his word at face value. He said he came back as a gesture of peace -- for sport, not politics -- and although some people will see it as an act of betrayal, many others will view it as permission to set aside politics and cheer for the national team, despite its connections to Assad."

AFP/Getty Images
That's Firas al-Khatib on the bottom row, right.

One person who will not cheer for Syria this Tuesday evening is Obay Al-Akul. He just can't bring himself to lend any support whatsoever to the regime, even though the Syrian football team's progress so deep in World Cup qualification is the stuff of sporting fairy tales.

"If you oppose Assad, you have to oppose this team," he said. "How can I go to support this team? It's impossible."

And that's why Al-Akul won't be watching the football. Instead, he'll be standing outside the Olympic Park train station, highlighting the Assad regime's ongoing mass killing and torturing of Syrian civilians.

He and his fellow protestors will also be calling for an end to the Turnbull Government's incarceration of refugees, including Syrians, in Australia's detention centres.

And he'll also be cheering for the Socceroos.

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