Syndrome of Sports and Politics in Syria… Can they Be Separated?
Enab Baladi’s investigation team
Calls for separating sports from politics have been widespread among all Syrians, including regime supporters and opponents, especially after the qualification of the Syrian national football team, referred to by the regime’s opponents as the “barrels team” or “al-Assad team, ”to the Asian playoff of World Cup for the first time in its history.
The calls for the separation of sport from politics have generated many debates and analyses over the past decades, especially in the Asian region, without reaching a clear resolution for the issue, despite the AFC’s demand to respect Article 3.2 of its law, which states that “the AFC is neutral in all matters of politics and religion”.
Some people believe that sport is a people’s right that no political or religious party can intervene in. However, others believe that sports are not exempt from the control of politicians and their interference, as they use it to express an opinion or to raise a political issue or to improve relations with other countries. In fact, the political institutions in all countries are showing interest in sports. They provide financial and academic support that they don’t provide to any other field. This is in order to use sports in different positions. Thus, the relation between sports and politics is complex and inseparable.
This relationship was more complicated in Syria, as sport was used by the ruling Baath party before the revolution. The gap and the complexity increased after that, as the conflict reached its peak as anti-regime players returned to the team, visited Damascus and thanked the “political leaders”.
Syrian Sport is controlled by the “Qatari Leaders”
Years after the 2011 revolution, and as the Syrian team played for the World Cup qualifications and reached the Asian playoffs, the Syrians became divided into opponents and supporters when it comes to supporting the team. Some people believed that politics have nothing to do with football in Syria and that the team represents all Syrians with their various political affiliations.
However, others considered that the Syrian regime used the successes of the team and the players to achieve political and media goals. Indeed, according to the official statements, supported by the regime head, Bashar al-Assad, these successes are considered as one of the achievements of the regime forces in the war on terrorism”, . After the qualification of the Syrian team, Bashar al-Assad wrote on the official Facebook page of the Syrian presidency, that the “achievements of the players through which the Syrian flag was raised in international events, despite all the crisis, constituted a way to defend Syria in facing what it is being subjected to”.
Moreover, the team staff and players offered the victory to the “master of Syria”, and described him as the sponsor of sports and athletes. This is reminiscent of what happened at the press conference of former coach Fajr Ibrahim in 2015 before playing against Singapore team. The coach, who wore a T.shirt with al Assad’s picture, said “our president is following and supporting all our steps, we play for the sake of our country and for his sake as well”.
These statements and events supported the view that “politics and sports in Syria are inextricably linked”. This was confirmed by the former player of the Syrian national team and the Al-Ittihad S.C. Aleppo Abdul Qader Abdul Hayy who took part in the 1986 World Cup qualifications for the World Cup in Mexico.
Abdul Hayy told Enab Baladi that sports, like all other issues, in Syria are politically and militarily run. “The regime uses intelligence systems in everything. No one can be appointed in a sports position or any other position unless the Baath party and the intelligence approves”, said Abdul Hayy, considering that “the regime is running Syria as if it only belonged to al-Assad and to the Alawites, and the best proof on this is the sectarian displacement and so on and so forth”.
Abdul Hayy won the Syrian Cup when he played with Al-Itihad in 1982 and 1985. He also played in Lebanon for two years and was part of a round of Asian C training in 2007.
The international player is surprised that some people call for the separation between sports and politics. “Everyone knows that the regime intervenes in the daily life of people and in every tiny thing that happens”, he said. Abdul Hayy also considered that the declarations of the players and the staff “made them look as if they were speaking in a party meeting, especially the statements that followed the football match against Iran”, he added.
Abdul Hayy’s opinion is shared by a number of Syrian football players that Enab Baladi met. They confirmed that the “Syrian Football Federation is run by the pro-Baath Qatari leadership”, and that “it is based on corruption and personal interests”.
This is how the game is run inside the Syrian Federation
In order to know more about the way the Syrian Federation runs the game of football, Enab Baladi talked to Nader al-Atrash, the responsible for the Free Football Federation of the Syrian Sports Organization. Al-Atrash worked with the Syrian Union between 1999 and 2012. He said that the sports file was formerly managed by Said Hamada and Majed Shaddoud, as well as Shahinaz Fakoush (members of the Qatari leadership of al-Baath party),and all of them were not familiar with sport.
The Football Federation was dissolved in 2003 and in 2012. Back then, it was headed by Dr. Ahmed Al-Jabban. The Federation was dissolved because of bribe cases and corruption, according to al-Atrash, who confirmed that it was not closed institutionally, as Shahinaz Fakoush asked the federation members to resign “in order to maintain the country’s reputation and the national security. Al-Atrash also pointed out that some members refused to resign but were forced to. Among these are al-Jabban, Walid Mahidi, Bahaa al-Amri, Torki al-Yassin and Ahmed Massaood.
Al-Atrash explained that after the federation was dissolved, Farouk Bouzou, a member of the Finance Committee of the International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) and a member of the International Referees Committee, was temporarily appointed in order to “facilitate the dissolution of the federation, stop the complaint to FIFA and close the file”.
During 2012, the federation, headed by Farouk, was dissolved once again due to problems related to the Syrian professional player in Europe, George Mourad. On this matter, al-Atrash explained that the Maj. Gen. Mouaffaq Jumaa, the current president of the federation, was its Secretary General then, and “he was the one responsible for hiding the correspondences between the Syrian and the Swedish Federations”.
The Syrian team was eliminated from the third round of the Asian qualifications for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, after a decision by FIFA following the participation of George Mourad with the Syrian national team who officially played for the Swedish team in 2003.
After the federation was dissolved, an interim committee headed by the member of the Executive Committee, Ibrahim Abazid, who is an athletics expert. The federation included a clan working against Farouk Sariaah, the most prominent of whom are the international referee Mohamed Koussa, Kamal al-Qudsi from Latakia, Ammar Izmirli from Aleppo, as well as the Secretary General of the dissolved federation, Samer Diaa.
Al-Atrash talked about threats by Mouaffaq Jumaa against the federation union before its dissolution, including the international referee Hamdi al-Qadri, who was then threatened to be transferred to Baba Amr sports facilities if he refused to resign. These facilities were then besieged by Assad forces.
No advance in Syrian sports
Among the former athletes interviewed by Enab Baladi is the soccer player Jihad Ashrafi, who confirmed that sports in all countries around the world are politics free, “However, politicians in Syria have intervened in everything”.
Ashrafi considered that Syria “will never rise to the level of the global sports, and it will always remain stagnant due to the interference of politics, as well as appointing people who lack expertise, have nothing to do with sports, and who are supported by stakeholders”.
The player stated that he is not against supporting the Syrian team in the qualifications “as it represents Syria and not Bashar al-Assad, the government or the opposition”. It actually includes players from all Syrian provinces and “it represents all the people”.
Even though Ashrafi wishes that politics would be separated from sports, he stressed that everything is interrelated. He is also surprised that the Syrian players offered the draw against Iran to al-Assad.“Offering the victory to al-Assad is a mistake. Offering the victory should be to the Syrian people who travelled to Iran, who gathered in the squares inside Syria and outside, to the refugees, who are united as if they are one heart”.
In a call with the Captain Walid al-Baytar, former player in the national team, Al-Hurriya FC., and al-Shorta, who is now living in Finland, he refrained from giving a statement to Enab Baladi, refusing to use the word “Syrian Revolution”. He said: “We are with Syria, with the Syrian army and with our country. I apologize for not being able to make a statement” adding that “this is not a revolution; this is ruin and cooperation between foreigners and Turkmans. It has nothing to do with Islam and with our country”.
Through his declaration, captain Baytar brought us back to the starting point, emphasizing the political interventions in the positions.
The return of al-Khatib and Al-Somah… Why?
In the context of the relationship between politics and sports, Syrians were divided over the return of players playing abroad to the national team, and those who were supporting the Revolution before joining the team. Here we are talking about Firas al-Khatib, a professional player in Kuwait and Omar al-Somah, a professional player in Saudi Arabia.
In 2012, al-Khatib announced during a festival organized by Syrian opposition in Kuwait that he would never play again for the national team as long as there are bombs falling upon Syria. As for Al-Somah, he raised the Syrian Revolution flag after the national team won the seventh West Asian Championship held in Kuwait in 2012. Following the victory, Al-Somah offered the victory to the supporters of the team who raised the Revolution flag. After that, he was prevented from participating with the national team and was accused by the Syrian Football Federation with “national treachery”, according to his statements on his Facebook page in 2015.
However, after the team achieved positive results during the World Cup qualifiers and its proximity to qualification, al-Khatib and al-Somah joined the team after negotiations with the Syrian Federation. In an interview with the Saudi TV channel “Arriadiyah” last April, al-Khatib said that “returning to the national team is purely athletic, and has nothing to do with anything else other but sports”.
However, the former player, Jihad Ashrafi, said that the return of al-Khatib is a way to “preserve his interests in Syria”, as he owns money and real estate. However, Abdul Kader Abdulhay believes that these sportsmen have no excuse to “give up on the revolution simply for promises of fame and money”, confirming that the regime is “trying to use them in order to enhance its image through sport”.
As for al-Atrash, he thinks that al-Khatib’s return is only for “personal and material” reasons, while al-Soumah’s failure to get another nationality pushed him to return, “so that he could add the title “international player” to his CV”. Some people considered the return of al-khatib and al-Somah as a treachery to the blood of their colleagues who were arrested and tortured by the regime or those who forcedly disappeared until now. These reactions emerged especially after the players’ statements of offering the victory to al-Assad and thanking him for supporting sports.
Players who were killed and who forcedly disappeared
In the latest statistics obtained by Enab Baladi from the General Commission for Sports and Youth, the number of victims among athletes in Syrian reached 400 since the beginning of the Revolution in 2011, while the number of detained athletes cannot be counted, some of them were arrested and released after a certain period of time, but more than 100 players are still detained. Among the athletes who were assassinated:
player of al-Wahda FC .,born in Damascus in 1991 and arrested in 2013. His family was informed of his death six months after his detention. His death was confirmed through the photographs leaked from section 215 of the military security.
former player of the national team and al-Karamah FC., born in Homs in 1975 and father to three children. He was tortured until death in Sednaya prison after two years of arrest in Baba Amr neighborhood in 2014 by the Political Security agents.
one of al-Karamah FCstars in the 1980s, he is considered as one of the stars of the “golden age of the Syrian football”. He was arrested in 2013 by the military security. His body was recognized through “Caesar” leaked photos.
player of al-Itihad FC and Omaya FC. He was killed in 2012 following the fall of artillery shells by al-Assad forces on al-Mashhad neighborhood in Aleppo.
In addition to aforementioned athletes, other sportsmen were killed in prisons. These include Syrian cycling champion Ahmed Lahlah, basetball player in al-Wahda FC, WaelWalidKani, basketball player in al-karama and al-Jaysh, RoodinAjek, Syria’s champion in wrestling, Malik Khaled Haj Hamad, football player in al-Shoulla, Mohammad al-Jawabra, Jomaa al-Dawry, one of the founders of the “Syrian Free Athletes Association”, swimmer Abdul Salam Fayez al-Hamad, the two players of al-Itihad FC, Salem Hijzai and Zalaria Youssef, player of al-Shoulla and the volleyball national team Razaq Qutifan, football player of al-Wathba, Tariq Antabli, the Syrian volleyball referee, Samir Soowid, the player of the national team of Karate Fares Msawra, the sports journalist Houssam al Mouss, and the international wrestler, Mustapha Nakdali, and others.
As for prisoners whose fate is still unknown, the most prominent of which are: Rania Abbassi, the dentist and Syrian and Arab chess champion. She was arrested along with her six children and her husband, the doctor, Abd al-Rahman al-Yassin in March 2013, in Dummur area in Damascus, basketball player, Samah Shokry, Amer Haj Hashem, a player of al-Shorta Club, as well as the national team of youth. Moreover, the fate of Tariq Abdul Hak, Mohammad Haj Suleiman and Ahmed al-Ayak is still unknown until now.
As for the released ones, we can mention the national football coach Hisham Khalad, the football players Zain al-Fandi Firas Tit, and Mohammad Kaniss. The regime also released Syrian equestrian captain Adnan Kassar in mid2014 after 21 years of arbitrary detention.
Enab Baladi’s Audience:No dissolution could be achieved and an independent party is the solution
Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on its website to monitor the Syrians’ view of the possibility to separate politics from sport in Syria.
Around 550 people responded to the following question: “Can politics be separated from sport in the Syrian situation?”
The majority of respondents (69%) felt that politics cannot be separated from sport in Syria, and some others considered it as impossible because the party which handles the national team’s affairs is biased. It is not responsible for developing sports in the country for it is “politicized” and affiliated to the Syrian regime.
Commenting on the poll, Talal Safiya stated that “separation between sport and politics is impossible, because the party responsible for the national team is not a neutral body which is responsible only for the development of sports in the country. It is rather an authoritative governmental institution.”
“That’s why you see them raising the leader’s pictures and hear the usual slogans whenever the national team wins,” he explained. He asked the following question, “Why does the national’s team former coach Fajr Ibrahim wear a T.shirt with a printed picture of Bashar al-Assad at press conferences? Isn’t that a political message?”
Mahmoud Fahed sarcastically commented on the issue saying that “what is most important is the leadership opinion. Whether it ordered separation or not they will abide by these orders and follow just like a sheep.” “May God be your agent; I had to acquire an approval on my wedding day. I mean they intervene in everything even this very private matter.”
Others considered that the regime is trying to exploit the Syrian team success and the return of the opposition players in its favor, and to prove that it is the only “legitimate” authority in Syria.
According to Shadi Barakat, the regime “takes advantage of half the achievements, attributing them to itself. However he sarcastically criticized this, saying that “if this achievement is fulfilled in the future, history will not mention that thanks to the wise leadership and sacrifices of the Syrian army, Syrian team was able to be qualified to World Cup.
In contrast, 31% of those who responded to the poll rejected the politicization of sports in Syria, and considered that the team “represents the people and not the authority”.
Al-Handhal Mohammed commented on the poll saying that “politics has to be separated from sports. What does this have to do with the other?” “Everyone has his own opinion in politics, but sports have common goals and audience.”
Meanwhile, others supported the idea of handing over the team’s management to an independent party, which has nothing to do with the regime. Khaled al-Mulla declared that “Separating sport from politics can be achieved only in case the Nnational Team is sponsored by a neuter party that has nothing to do with the regime, and provides the players and the technical staff with the absolute freedom to raise the flag they want.”
Why did the Revolution fail to form a National Team?
The Commission includes 12 sport federations and four executive committees in the governorates of Daraa, Damascus, Aleppo and Idlib, in addition to more than 140 clubs inside and outside Syria.
Since its establishment in March 2014, its members have organized tournaments in Syria and neighboring countries. It also sponsored the first football league in Idlib last August, after its committee classified the clubs into degrees.
The split over supporting the National Team, which is being accused by revolution supporters of being affiliated to the Syrian regime, raised questions about the reasons behind the failure of the Syrian Revolution to form a sport body capable of directing the sports file in terms of opposition. Despite the success of the Syrian Sports Committee as an organism capable of contributing to sponsoring activities out of regime-held areas and neighboring countries, the reality prevented the formation of the “Free” National Team.
The committee attempts to form a National Team failed before for many reasons. According to what Thilal al-Muallem, the head of the Syrian Sports Committee, has explained to Enab Baladi. He stated that “many obstacles blocked the way of this move, most notably gathering up players from inside and outside Syria, poor international and financial support, and the difficulty of acquiring visas for players in order to organize matches outside Syria and Turkey, which hosts a selection of professional players.”
Al-Muallem also spoke about an intention to form a team from within Syria saying that “it extends from Hama to Aleppo only, because we cannot include players from Daraa, Homs and Ghouta for all of these are besieged.” He stressed that “until today and according to the current data, it is not possible to acknowledge a team that is not affiliated to al-Assad. If the International Community wanted to acknowledge us, it would have recognized the coalition, the government and the Syrian Revolution first.”
In order to acquire FIFA recognition, the Committee has been communicating over the past years with the International Sports Federation. However it did not receive a response, according to al-Muallem.
The head of the Committee argued that he discussed the recognition (acknowledgment), last May, with the members of the German Olympic Committee in Turkey, after having officially received an invitation to attend ping-pong world championship on its territory. However the answer was that “only one committee from Syria can be recognized.”
According to Nader al-Atrash, the head of the Free Football Federation, “working without balance and submitting to the whims of institutions and other bodies that provide support” was a major reason behind the prevention of the team’s formation.
Speaking about the recognition of the newly formed team, al-Atrash stated that “this is not possible because the international community is not being fair at all. It is rather a source of corruption and personal interests.” Al Atrash equally referred to “international community’s refusal to recognize the Revolution as another cause of the failure to form a “Free” National Team.
The Free Federation rejected FIFA’s request to coordinate with the Regime’s Federation to organize joint activities earlier, according to al-Atrash, who justified this refusal, claiming that “because we are free to make our own decision and the Federation sought to consider us as an entity that arose in a state of war and within areas of conflict and disasters”. He assured that pure sport talents in and outside Syria, can represent the team.
According to al-Muallem, the Committee is building a sports institution for two reasons. First to confront whatever the regime has in case of a political dissolution, and second, to set up an institution that can work directly in case of the division of Syria in order to represent sports’ reality.
Sports as a room for political calculations throughout history
The most prominent sport-induced global political change was in 1971 when China took advantage of ping-pong World Championship in Japan to invite the American team for a friendly game. Thus, the team members were the first Americans to visit China after 22 years of break up. The players paved the way for US President Richard Nixon to visit China in the following year.
The most powerful sporting arena that appears to be the best choice for politicians to settle their accounts is the Olympic Games. In the 1920s in Belgium during the First World War, no participation invitations were sent to the defeated camp, including Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey and Hungary as a way of punishment.
At 1980 session, 61 countries boycotted the Olympics in Moscow; in response to US President Jimmy Carter’s call after Russia intervened in the war in Afghanistan. Then, Soviet allies boycotted the session held in 1984 and hosted by Los Angeles.
The employment of sport does not only stop at this global level, but also continues to put pressure on individuals, and punish them for their political views or exploit them for manufacturing extremist ideological propaganda.
In 1937, German boxing champion Max Schmeling’s victory over his black American counterpart Julius was considered as proof of the Nazis Aryan race superiority, which deserves to lead the world. Even Adolf Hitler received Schmeling, gave him high honor medals and considered him as a national hero. However, Julius took revenge of Schmeling in the next session, so the German media cut off radio broadcasting of the match, and the Nazi regime disowned the defeated boxer.
In 1964, America stripped world boxing champion Mohammed Ali Clay of his titles, trophies, and boxing license because of his position regarding Vietnam War and his refusal to take part in it.
If the previous examples occurred within political and historical conditions that do not intersect with the Arab world in general, a very successful experiment conducted by Algeria in 1958 during its resistance to French colonialism must be mentioned. The Algerian National Liberation Front, which led the revolution, formed a National football team which introduced the Algerian issue through friendly matches.
Although France managed to fight the team by putting pressure on FIFA to refuse to recognize it, Algerian football players were able to play 80 friendly matches in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. The team formed the Algerian Football Federation after independence.
It is necessary to consider the Algerian experience amid Syrian opposition accusations of the opposition institutions for their failure to recruit Syrian sport stars, until the regime was able to win them back after seven years of conflict.
Beyond the estimations and analysis, and closer to the figures and statistics, a study carried out by the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, in 2010, indicated the link between the victories of a country or region sport team, ten days before the date of election, and the high rates of participation in the ballot. Participation’s percentage depends on the increasing number of sports teams’ fans.
Sport may actually be people’s sole room for entertainment, especially for the Arab populations. However, politicians’ exploitation of its leading figures and events in order to manipulate people’s feelings inevitably put it out of the sense of innocencethat is always sought by sports lovers.
The Barrels’ Team cannot bring a Smile to Syrians
A number of Arab and international media outlets have made great efforts to show al-Assad’s sports brigade as the Syrian National Team representing all the Syrian people.
A group of players and media reporters spoke about the possibility to draw a smile on the faces of Syrians inside and outside the country, through this team in case it was qualified directly or to the Asian playoffs of the World Cup qualifications which will be held on 2018.
As their interest shifted toward Syrian’s love of football, these agencies ignored everything that was going on inside Syria, in refugee camps, and in migration routes.
It also overlooked any sports or human rights document that proves that those who kill and arrest Syrian athletes from the beginning of the Revolution in March 2011 until today are the regime loyalties, whom they are representing and playing for and whose pictures are held by their leaders. Even the flag raised by these athletes is the same flag printed on wings of warplanes and armored vehicles that are destroying Syria daily.
What I would like to say here is that killing Syrians who are asking for freedom, dignity and change in Syria takes place in a number of ways, including promoting this team as a smile for the Syrians. Millions of Syrians believe that it is a new political means used by the Syrian regime and some of its allies to convince the world that al-Assad won… This game is exposed in advance.
Free Syrian athletes have mobilized through some newspapers, media outlets and TV screens to declare their rejection of such team as a representative of the Syrians’ dreams. They have bet on al-Assad gang’s control over all aspects of life in Syria and that nothing has changed about the policy of repression and silencing before Qatar and Iran matches.
This was conveyed through the statements of players on “Sama” TV channel when they began to direct sincere salutations to Bashar al-Assad, the sponsor of sports, athletes and Army, who is storming the cities and towns every hour in Syria. The only thing that was left for them is to thank the sectarian militias and hostile armies allied to the regime.
Since Hafez al-Assad came to power, everything and every civilian station in Syria has become the “Qatari Leadership of Arab Baath Socialist Party” property. There is no civil sector, including sport, which can take place in another orbit.
It is clear that sports’ structure within al-Assad system springs from the Qatari Leadership Office of Youth and Sports into the General Sports Federation, which was led by a group of Baathist and military figures, the most recent of which is Major General Muwafaq Jumah, to the sports federations that are run within the frame of Security Services and according to the party’s loyalty to the leader.
This was evident in the last 15 years with the membership of Major General Mohammed Khair Sulaiman, Colonel Ahmed Zeno, Brigadier General Hassan Suwaidan and Brigadier General Hatem Al-Ghayeb in the Football Federation.
Not to mention the blatant interference of the Army and Armed Forces Physical Preparation Committee in sport process on behalf of the “Army” or “Police” club, which is called in Syria “Committees’ Clubs”.
We will not delve deeper into the corrupt sport, security and military system inside Syria, which produces every year or every championship such team or several other national teams. The names of the players and managers are chosen according to their strong loyalty and not the need or importance of the player or coach.
In front of this scene, which began 20 days ago and came to an end with thanking statements to the wise leadership, I think that the entire Syrian team would be relevant if detention centers were emptied of tortured athletes, and if the family of Dr. Rania Abbasi, the Syrian and the Arab world chess champion, was released years after detention.
The Syrian team’s statements of gratitude to the regime would be accepted if the families of the athletes could answer everyone who asks about the reason why their sons were killed, that that was because they demanded freedom and were not killed by armed terrorist gangs.
The new team caused a split in Syria… Yes… This is certain because Syria had never belonged to its people, but was and is still a private farm for criminals, buglers and murderers, headed by Bashar al-Assad.
They want to bring joy for these people through military boots, while the struggles of Syrian men and youth continue in all fields, including sports on the altar of freedom. At the end, the barrels’ team cannot bring Syrians a smile.