Between sports and politics …Syrian football crippled by its “federations”
Yamen Moghrabi | Orwoa Kanawati | Nour al-Din Ramadan | Abdullah al-Khatib
Since its establishment in 1936, the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF) has achieved little, and deprived Syrian football fans from happy endings and real victories for almost a century. Victories that could raise their ambitions and hope for world titles.
After coming to power in 1970, Hafez al-Assad issued a legislative decree No 38 for the establishment of a sports organization called the General Sports Federation (GSF), the highest sports authority is the country. This federation was directly affiliated to the Regional Leadership of “Ba’ath Party” which took complete control over the different joints of the Syrian football.
Back then, security services intervened in football as well as some governmental officials from the inner circle of Hafez al-Assad. Meantime, corruption contributed in weakening the federation, while talking about a successful football leadership or effective on the national level became a sort of wishful thinking.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses, through conducting interviews with heads of some clubs, players as well as administrators in the federation, the nature of relationship between the General Sports Federation (GSF), and security services in Syria. It also sheds light on the GSF relationship with Syrian clubs and their limited regional success compared with the former’s team.
Football is controlled by “partiality” chains
Like all other Syrian sports federations, the SFF is directly affiliated to the GSF and therefore to “Ba’ath” party represented by the regional Sport and Youth Bureau. Meanwhile, the federation enjoys a “mock” independence before the International Federation of Association of Football (FIFA) which prevents governments and political parties’ direct interference in local federations.
Since 2000, with Bashar al-Assad taking office, the tightened grip of the security apparatus started loosening up a little, while interferences in the GSF and SFF have also lessened. However, this kind of “mitigation” did not stop the issuance of several decisions to dissolve certain Syrian football unions, according to the former vice president of the Syrian Football Federation, Nader al-Atrash.
Al-Atrash held this position between 2010 and 2012; however, he worked before in the secretariat office for more than eleven years; from 1999 till 2010 and was also the general manager of the Syrian junior national team between 2007 and 2008.
Dissolved Unions by “Ba’ath” orders
The union headed by Ahmed al-Jaban between 2002 and 2008 was dissolved as well as two other unions headed by Farouk Sariaah in the years (1999- 2001- 2010-2011). This was not all, the union of Fadi al-Dabbas also was dissolved in the period between (2018-2019) under the command of the Regional Leadership of”Ba’ath” party, as confirmed to Enab Baladi by al-Atrash, who denied resigning willingly.
In 2019, al-Dabass resigned after results said to be “disappointing” by the Syrian national team during the AFC Asian Cup in 2019 and the West Asian Football Federation Championship of the same year. This led to an outrage within the local mass media and the team’s fans and resulted in campaigns calling for the resignation of al-Ittihad presidency and coach Fajr Ibrahim. All this took place before al-Dabbas was accused of corruption and the issuance of a judicial decision to seize his assets.
Al-Atrash asserted that the SFF was dissolved before in the office of the member of the Regional Leadership of “Ba’ath” party, Shahinaz Fakoush, twice. He explained that there is no truth in the said collective resignations of the federation as rumored earlier. Al-Atrash proceeded by saying that such interferences were kept secret from FIFA out of fear which starts by threatening anyone thinking of talking or mailing or even hitting about such violations.
A hierarchy which opens the door for security interference
Former member at al-Ittihad board club, Alaa Zain al-Din confirmed to Enab Baladi that hierarchy within the Federation for Football and GSF. The process usually starts by an official letter from one of the clubs in the office of collective sports, which in its turn send it to the governorate branch affiliated to the GSF to finally reach its headquarters. This long routine process is conducted in the opposite direction in case there is an official letter from the highest executive sporting authority GSF to clubs.
According to al-Atrash such hierarchy does not cover only administrative matters, but it includes also investigations on charges of corruption. In 2010, there were many cases of corruption and bribes in the Football League. At that time, the SFF was supposed be the authorized entity to ask direct questions and conduct investigations on the matter.
However, the Federation loses entirely its power and becomes ” unbalanced”, according to al-Atrash, making it easy for the GSF to intervene along with prominent security and military figures to tamper with cases as it happened in 2010.
Former football player in al-Wahda Club, Nabil al-Shahmeh, compares the SFF relationship with the GSF to that of divorcees. He explained that “they have different approaches and visions” in the absence of any sort of harmony between them.
He confirmed to Enab Baladi, he has never seen any sort of accord between them throughout his career, as they take different decisions considering that the decision of the General Sports Federation will be implemented eventually.
Al-Shahmeh explained that “the GSF exerts pressure on the SFF through financial support and keeping of SFF members in their positions.”
This kind authority is derived from “Ba’ath” party control over all the Syrian state joints. Once people hear “the party wants this or that”, implementation takes place right away according to al-Shahmeh. Same thing applies for the appointment of club heads, of course, since the appointment is done by “Ba’ath” party itself, even with elections were held inside the club by the Regional Leadership. With all this being said, club presidents are ready to implement any decision without hesitation.
As for elections, they are also interfered by the party, where the board of directors, at a rate of “one + half” must be members of “Ba’ath”, so that all elections would be held under the umbrella of the party itself. According to the former vice president of the Syrian Football Federation, Nader al-Atrash,”the same goes for all Syrian clubs without exception”.
According to al-Atrash “if the Syrian Federation of Football was independent in Syria, everything would have been different”, citing the example of television broadcasting rights and its incomes given to the federation instead of soccer clubs. While distributing sums to soccer clubs in form of “prizes”, hence would be impossible to privatize soccer clubs because “Ba’ath” party will lose its control over them.
Security grip a tool to impose control
Football on officials’ whim
With regards to “Ba’ath” control over the Syrian state’s joints, it has become difficult to separate sports from the security and political services. This enables interfering in the appointments of club heads, facilitating players’ travel especially those required for compulsory military services, as well as manipulating match results for specific teams in addition to dissolving some sports unions.
The Ruling Family’s Power
However, security services were not the only ones interfering in the Syrian football. Dozens of Latakia inhabitants shares stories through social media platforms of Fawaz al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, about his support for Tishreen sporting club and shooting in matches.
“Middle East online” reported a story about Fawaz shooting in the air, as an objection to Hittin club scoring a goal against its arch-rival Tishreen club, which forced the match referee to count another goal for Tishreen to tie the game.
The former president of the Tishreen Club, Salah Karawy, told Enab Baladi about the relationship of Fawaz al-Assad to the club that a major dispute took place between him and the latter, who was considered “the honorary president of the club”, noting that such dispute occurred when Nuri Barakat became president of the GSP.
According to Karawi, “Nuri was a pawn in the hands of Fawaz al-Assad,” he explained saying “we were nine members in the management board. Back then, Fawaz used to fire members who have some sort of agreement with me and appoint members from his side to hinder laws and abstract attempts to boost the club’s performance.” Karawi has also confirmed that all Fawaz al-Assad needed to do to appoint someone or fire another is to make a phone call without elections or nominations, with the prior knowledge of all sports officials in Syria.
Official playing their own game
Former football player in Umayya club between 1996 and 2006, Bilal Fallaha, told Enab Baladi that one phone call allowed him to go to a training camp in Egypt, despite being banned from traveling because he was requested to perform military service.
Back then and after a phone call between the head of a “security” branch in Idlib governorate and the governor of Damascus countryside, to obtain a valid “mission” passport within a few hours, Fallaha returned to Syria “without trouble” and without anyone getting in his way, as he put it.
A member of the board of directors of Daraya Club in Damascus countryside between the years 1991 and 1997, 2008 and 2016, who was also the secretary of the Futsal Football Committee in the Syrian Football Federation between 2010 to 2014, Dhafer Alayan, talked to Enab Baladi about another incident which confirms officials’ control over the federation.
In the early 1990’s of the last century, a match was held at “al-Galaa” sports stadium in Damascus between the police sporting club and Jableh sporting club during the Syrian League competitions at that time. The match was attended by Alayan and the Syrian international football referee, Jamal al Sharif.
Between both halves of the match, an officer named Mohsen Salman went down to the stadium to perform exercises until both teams return, after a 15 minutes break. However, Salman did leave the stadium after 35 minutes and no one dared to ask him to do so.
Matches results “manipulated”
Muhammad Ragheb al-Ashqar, former football player of both Umayya and Jableh sporting clubs, told Enab Baladi that in 2005, while playing for Jableh club, told Enab Baladi that in 2005, while playing for Jableh, his club played against Qardaha sporting club twice, both in the league and cup, and the latter needed to win to avoid relegation.
At that time, Jableh lost 5-0 against Qardaha under “administrative directions” and under the pretext that Qardaha club has “a brotherly relationship with the club and must be helped”. However, the latter lost the cup match with the same score. This manipulation led to the fall of al-Nawair club to the second-class clubs.
Al-Ashqar added that when the technical and administrative staff were asked about what happened, their answer was, “things are ahead of us.”
These interventions by security officers did not stop at firing administrators, being against the match arbitration or even manipulating scores, but it exceeded it to suspending 2011 League by the Regional Leadership of “Ba’ath Party” itself, according to Alayan. Back then, Alayan tried to persuade the head of the GSF, Muwaffaq Juma, not to stop the league who answered by referring to the source of this order.
The tax of disloyalty
With the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the GSF and the SFF fought players of clubs suspected of disloyalty to the regime through withholding sports documents from them, which prevented Syrian players from becoming professionals outside Syria in Arab leagues.
Legally, it is not permissible for any party in Syria to withhold sports documents and prohibit players’ waiver forms for political reasons, even if this authority is the Syrian Federation of Football, the General Sports Federation or any club’s administration, according to Salah Karawi, former president of Tishreen Sporting Club.
When it comes to the international law, Karawi said, it is not permissible to mix sports with politics. As for Syria, hundreds of Syrian athletes, including players, coaches, and football figures, lost their lives when opposing the regime and security services. Some of them are still in detention camps until now.
Unsuitable infrastructure for friendly matches
What are the funding sources of SFF?
Football federations around the world seek to host sports tournaments, considering their benefits on sports, politics and the economy of the hosting country. Usually the country is authorized to submit applications to regional unions or the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA).
However, unlike most of its neighboring countries, Syria did not host sporting events since the 1987 Mediterranean Games held in Latakia.
Although ” Mediterranean Games” are usually addressed for coastal cities, its organizers were forced to hold some football matches at “Hamdania” Stadium in Aleppo, due to the poor infrastructure in Latakia, that was built specifically for this event.
According to Nader al-Atrash, former vice president of the Syrian Football Federation, all state entities were mobilized for the sake of these games; however, the committee was forced to transfer several activities outside of Latakia due to the occurrence of organizational chaos, even these games were not of a significant value.
Sports journalist, Hani al-Abdullah, believes that the regime was “desperate to host a sports championship in 1980’s of the twentieth century, after conducting violations against Hama in 1982. This struggle came from its burning desire to brighten its image before the international community.”
According to al-Abdullah, through the said tournament Hafez al-Assad wanted to introduce his son Basil al-Assad to the international community. This was clear with Basil giving the sporting speech at the opening of the tournament where he received a gold medal.
Two barriers: infrastructure and security officials’ mindset
Syria has never been able to host any tournaments, according to al-Atrash. He added that if the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) or the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) wanted to set the same terms and conditions placed on the neighboring countries for hosting these events, Syria will not be eligible to host any tournament or any match, even if it is friendly.
Al-Atrash attributed this to Syria’s poor sports infrastructure as well as its poor public transport networks and roads, as well as the hosting services such as hotels, resorts, etc. This was also confirmed by General Farouk Bouzo, reported by al-Atrash, that the Syrian sports infrastructure “does not take into account international tournaments hosting requirements.”
Journalist, Hani al-Abdullah, believes that most Syrian state revenues used to go primarily to the security apparatus, while most sports infrastructure which could qualify Syria to host sporting events was neglected.
In addition to the poor sports infrastructure in Syria, since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Syrian regime has transformed most of sports facilities, such as “the Abbasiyyin” and “al-Galaa” stadiums in Damascus, the “Hamdania” Stadium in Aleppo, Daraa and Deir Ezzor stadiums as well as the Sports city in Lattakia, to detention centers or helipads.
ماهو سبب فشل اتحاد كرة القدم السوري في تحقيق أي نتائج؟
What are the funding resources of SFF?
Sponsorship contracts, lavishing money on teams and clubs, provide financial support for the General Sports Federation’s treasury, in addition to a budget allocated by the GSF and some financial aid. Economic sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime during the years of the Syrian revolution prevented foreign companies from signing sponsorship sports contracts.
The Syrian Federation of Football has also benefited from revenues obtained from television broadcasting rights of the Syrian national team and league on “ART” networks and then “al-Jazeera Sports” (BN Sport currently) as well as local radios sale rights, according to Nader al-Atrash. Such contracts were lucrative despite the poor experience in marketing process as well as the shortage in financial outputs.
In addition to these funding resources, FIFA and AFC allocate financial support to team members to enhance performance. Moreover, FIFA also provides annual financial assistance which amounts to USD 500 thousand paid in June as a part of a specific development program within the frame of the second edition of the FIFA Forward Development Programme called ” “FIFA Forward 2.0″.
This program is part of FIFA’s endeavors to develop football across the globe, additionally to several assistance programs, like technical development programs, infrastructure development and the assistance provided for unions to cover their operational costs.
The federation set ten criteria to meet the requirement for obtaining aid, at a rate of 50 thousand dollars per criterion. Yet, regardless the SFF’s eligibility to receive the funding, Hatem al-Ghayeb, announced that FIFA has allocated half a million dollars for his federation’s benefit during the current year. However, the economic sanctions imposed on Syria have prevented the federation from receiving the grant disbursed early this year as aid to local sporting unions in dealing with the consequences of the pandemic of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19).
The GSF spends 30% of its annual budget on football, according to statements by its current head, General Mwafaq Juma, in an interview with “From the Other” program streamed on the Syrian TV on 30 April 2017.
84 years since the establishment of the SFF
Did clubs top their national team?
During the years where the GSF took control over the whole sports arena, the number of accomplishments decreased, while Syrian teams and clubs’ participations in the Arab, continental and international forums became almost rare.
Since its establishment in 1936 and after joining both FIFA in 1937 and the AFC in 1969, the SFF did not achieve much on the Arab and regional level despite being one of the oldest football federations in the region.
This was reflected in the performance of the Syrian national football team and its achievements, both on Arab and continental levels.
Consequently, the Syrian national football team was unable to reach the World Cup finals, not even once, since the tournament started in 1930. This was primarily due to problems and difficulties linked to laws, the way problems were managed, miscommunication and poor planning, in addition to corruption cases. All this has contributed to the sabotage of Syrian football instead of trying to save it and present it properly.
Meantime, Syrian clubs have tried to save face through their participations in Asian tournaments; specifically, in the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup with the new millennium.
Unlike the Syrian national football team, these clubs managed to achieve Asian titles; with al-Jaish and al-Ittihad clubs winning the AFC Cup in 2004 and 2010 respectively. While al-karamah was the runner-up at both the 2006 AFC Champions League and the 2009 AFC Cup, which prompted the AFC to describe al-Karamah club by “Syria’ pride” through its official website. The federation has also ranked its match against the Korean Jeonbuk club in 2006, as one of the five most exciting games in the history of the championship.
Since 2009, Syrian teams have been excluded from the AFC Champions League, and participated only in the AFC Cup, because they failed to meet the AFC requirements, which included, each club must have its own stadium, bank account and a great sense of professionalism.
According to Nader al-Atrash, the SFF had no significant role in helping these clubs achieve titles or reach advanced positions. He explained that the federation role was limited to correspondence and sending notices to these clubs about the activities of the AFC.
For his part, Salah Karawi, former head of Tishreen sporting club, thinks that the reasons behind the Syrian national football team failure are linked to the interference of politics even “in the slightest detail of its players’ lives… taking into consideration that they have been among the best Syrian football teams for four years now.”
What others consider to be an achievement, both Nader al-Atrash and Nabil al-Shahmeh, former football player at al-Wahda Club consider to be “mutation” without being able to develop.
Al-Shahmeh pointed that failure to achieve any accomplishments was not limited to the Syrian national team but also includes the entire sports system, “except for al-Karama Club, which succeeded to create its own system individually in a practical manner by its officials, and thus were able to leave their mark on Asian tournaments.”
As for the AFC Cup title, which was previously achieved by two Syrian clubs, it is a “second-row” tournament and not a continental one, while the participating countries and teams have low ranking in the Asian continent, as Nader al-Atrash put it.
in the light of an unsatisfactory history while underestimating some of its achievements as well as the worrying present where different factors intertwined, those interested or responsible for this field have little faith in the federation and its ability to improve football in Syria.
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