Yamen Moghrabi / Orwoa Kanawati / Ali Darwish
“I want a penalty kick, and I don’t want to see a single offside flag raised,” through this threatening tone, the president of Qardaha Sporting Club, Muhammad Khair Bek, addressed both Qardaha and al-Shabab teams in 2007, in the presence of referee Muhammed al-Ghadry. This story is one dozens of refereeing corruption stories eating away at the Syrian football.
No football match of the Syrian League passes without referees getting insulted by fans, often followed by badmouthing them in local papers, not to mention that sometimes they get beaten or physically assaulted by club presidents.
In Syria, referees are unprotected against the interference of club administrations, nor of that of the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF) or the General Sports Federation (GSF). Previously, many corruption cases were exposed, after which referees lost their badges and got suspended from work in 2009 after extortions by the Referees Committee.
Last June, the Syrian League referees threatened to strike in case refereeing fees were not raised and penalties against them by the aforementioned committee remained in effect. Such penalties came as a result of several controversial refereeing decisions and mistakes by referees in league matches which triggered fans’ discontent. Finally, the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF) answered referees’ demands.
In this file, Enab Baladi investigates cases of corruption by referees and their relationship with the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF), as well as the Asian and International Federations. It also sheds light on how these referees are being shield them from being held accountable in cases of misconduct and demonstrate how sports authorities avoid penalties. To conduct this investigation, Enab Baladi had contacted former international and local referees.
Corruption…a thorn in the side of Syrian Football
Over many years, Syrian football has witnessed dozens of corruption stories, some of which remained undisclosed while others reached media and included threats, extortion, beating and receiving bribes. This situation remained unchanged in the absence of any real actions against such misconducts which directly affect one of the most popular sports, whose team did not achieve for decades anything worth mentioning.
Exerting pressure and controlling results
Muhammad al-Ghadry, a referee in the First Division of the Syrian league, told Enab Baladi his testimony about a match between Qardaha and al-Shabab clubs in the Second Division, in which he was an assistant referee. Back then, the refereeing team received a direct threat from the president of Qardaha sports club, Muhammad Khair Bek.
Khair Bek descended to the dressing room, spoke loudly with the referee of the match and asked him for a penalty shootout in favor of his team, then headed towards the assistant referees in a threatening tone and said: “I don’t want to see a single offside flag raised.”
However, the referees’ team did not respond to his requests, and al-Ghadry concluded his story by saying, “we finished the match with the lowest possible losses!” (without penalties, assault, or dismissal as a result of malicious reports.)
Luckily, al-Ghadry and his colleagues suffered the least losses in 2007; however, referee Yasser al-Hussein was not lucky enough in 2009, which has witnessed a huge refereeing scandal.
Former vice president of the Syrian Football Federation (SFF), Nader Al-Atrash, told Enab Baladi that al-Hussein was beaten in the dressing room at the end a match between al-Wathba SC and Jableh SC. Back then, Jableh Sporting Club had to win to remain in the first-class of the league, which was under the control of a number of brokers.
Al-Atrash explained that one of the Referees Committee members appointed al-Hussein as a referee for the match, which al-Atrash described as “a joke in terms of technicality and refereeing”. Both teams tied the match at 2-2 which meant that Jableh SC ranked lower than it was supposed to. Meantime, a member of Jableh SC entered the dressing room and beat al-Hussein severely, took all his money, an estimated amount of 250 thousand Syrian Pounds, and left the dressing room.
In the wake of this incident, al-Hussein’s license was suspended; however, he returned later to the pitch before announcing his retirement last June following the recent problems in the local league and the huge criticism by followers of social media platforms and local media outlets. While announcing his retirement decision, al-Hussein said that his license was suspended in 2009 as “a malicious penalty”, after being accused of match-fixing.
The 2009 scandal did not pass unnoticed, according to the former international referee and the secretary of Referee’s Committee of Aleppo, Shaker Hamidi. He told Enab Baladi, that an investigation was carried out on the different joints of the game which resulted in the dismissal of members of the Referees Committee and a large number of referees. So, was the case in 2000 after Tishreen SC won the Syrian League championship, where a number of referees’ licenses were suspended.
For his part, Nader al-Atrash recounted another incident in a match between al-Shorta
SC and Hutteen SC in 2008. Back then, both teams needed to win to stay in the first-class. Hence, the referee of the match, Abd al-Rahman Rashu, was called to the “State security” branch to allow al-Shorta SC win the match, the referee promised each side to help it, according to al-Atrash; however, the match ended in a tie.
To what extent these entities intervene?
Former international referee, lecturer, Muhannad Dibba, in an interview with Enab Baladi, considered that the current major attack on Syrian referees is a result of several “catastrophic mistakes made by them”. He also talked about some referees being under pressure in matches of al-Sahel, Jableh, Tishreen, and Qardah Sporting Clubs.
Former international referee Abdullah al-Nasser believes that forming a practical refereeing base is a “very complicated and difficult process”. He also considered that corruption in refereeing is an important factor which eats away at the Syrian football.”
Al-Nasser added that combating corruption in football needs organized action simply because one individual cannot eliminate it, describing refereeing as the “weakest link” in Syrian football, often blamed for all mistakes and problems.
Meantime, former referee, Muhammad al-Ghadry, believes that an honest referee can reject corruption in certain situations, but certainly cannot fight it.
Who chooses referees to officiate matches?
According to referee Abdullah al-Nasser, at the beginning of the season, the Referees Committee appoints referees; yet, the names of the chosen ones will be according to the wishes of influential members.
Meantime, Former vice president of the Syrian Football Federation (SFF), Nader Al-Atrash, believes that the selection of referees is done in accordance with the whims of the main referees’ committee.
During the rule of the Vice-Chairman of the Referees Committee in the Syrian Federation for Football, Nizar Rabbat, all businessmen were able to choose referees based on their whims, as al-Atrash put it. Such information was verified by Enab Baladi from different sources.
Rabbat held this position between 2008-2009, until his resignation last June which coincided with the retirement of referee Yasser al-Hussein, under severe criticism of the referees’ performance in the Syrian league.
Who protects Syrian referees?
Corruption stories reported by Enab Baladi proved that referees are actually the weakest link in the Syrian football system, as they are subject to extortion, threats, insults from the public and criticism from sports newspapers, while their wages do not exceed 40 thousand Syrian pounds per match (less than USD 20), according to a decision by the SFF that was released last June.
The current situation opened the door for questions about the responsible entity for the protection of referees against threats in the absence of any health or social insurance against accidents as well as the absence of protection by the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF).
Former international referee and former secretary of the referees’ committee of Aleppo, Shaker Hamidi, told Enab Baladi that referees are protected if they paid for that kind of protection, considering that both the General Sports Federation (GSF) and the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF) “can handle this matter.” Whereas Muhammad al-Ghadry thinks Syrian referees cannot be at the moment under the corrupted leadership of the General Sports Federation (GSF) and the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF). He also confirmed the ease to exploit the difficult financial conditions and some referees’ naivety through brokers.
The issue of protecting referees is not even discussed, according to the former vice president of the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF), Nader al-Atrash, because the responsible party for their protection, (the SFF), cannot intervene side by side with the security and military interventions in Syrian sports.
Meantime, Muhannad Dibba thinks that building trust between the different sporting clubs and the refereeing system through ensuring fairness and integrity by referees and the implementation of penal and disciplinary regulations, in addition to developing the refereeing system, are all factors that can protect referees from pressure. He considered that SFF and GSF did not take any serious steps to protect referees while clubs are still intimidating them.
Between the referees and the Referees Committee …between the Committee and the Federation
A Civil-military conflict under the gaze of “FIFA”
Poor refereeing performance in the Syrian League opened the door to criticize referees, especially after their performance declined significantly on the pitch. However, it is not only a matter of poor performance or corruption, because there is a struggle within the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF) itself.
Tense relationship after a “fake” statement
On 18 of last June, the Referees Committee published a statement addressed to the head of the General Sports Federation (GSF), Firas Mualla, the head of the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF), Brigadier Hatem al-Ghaeb, and his deputy (the Chairman of the Referees Committee), Zakaria Kanat, and the Vice-Chairman of the Committee, Nizar Rabbat.
The statement was signed by 84 referees of the Syrian League who asked for a meeting with the aforementioned sports figures “following the events which affected refereeing without any protection or evidence,” so to avoid not being able to officiate matches if they were assigned to do so.
Former vice president of the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF), Nader al-Atrash, said it is the first time in the history of Syrian football, to witness civil disobedience by referees. However, he thinks that it was staged by the Chairman of the Referees Committee, Zakaria Kanat, and his deputy, Nizar Rabbat, who forged referees’ signatures.
This staged incident, according to al-Atrash, was an attempt by Kanat and Rabbat to blackmail the head of the SFF and had it not been for the head of the General Sports Federation (SGF), Firas Mualla, if would have turned into a major scandal.
All referees are supposed to be under the tutelage of the Referees Committee which takes its instructions from the SFF, according to al-Atrash. Yet, the incident of falsifying referees’ signatures, who were in shock, confirms that the aforementioned statement was politicized and that there is a huge rift between the referees and their committee from one part and from another part between the Referees Committee and the SFF.
This rift demonstrated that there is a conflict between the military and the police since the president of the Referees Committee, Zakaria Kanat, is a colonel in the Republican Guard in the Syrian army, while the head of the Syrian Federation for Football (SFF), Hatem al-Ghayeb, is a brigadier general in the police force.
What prevents FIFA and the AFC from interfering?
There should be a connection between referees and the Federation of the International Football Associations (FIFA), but it was always tainted by corruption because nominating the formers for the FIFA international refereeing badge was conducted and conditioned by a local committee and local football federation. Such conditions included spending a specific period of time in the first division and officiating a specific number of matches there. In addition, referees must be “charismatic” and talented. All these conditions open the door for more intervention by the local committees and federations while selecting the names of referees in local contests.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) leaves a room for federations to manage local contests and it does not intervene unless there is a conflict between sporting clubs and one of them filed a complaint to the FIFA or the AFC, which is impossible, according to the former international referee, lecturer and referees observer Muhannad Dibba. He explained that whoever files a complaint is qualified by sports authorities and security services “a traitor to the country” and thus they are forced to resign, which was the case with former President of “SFF”, Salah Ramadan.
Ramadan signed in March 2018 a cooperation document with Qatar which prompted the former head of the General Sports Federation (GSF), Muwafaq Juma’a, to force the former to resign later. Ramadan was under a lot of pressure by security and governmental bodies. Back then, the AFC conducted an investigation about the matter in Beirut, and Ramadan said that he has submitted his resignation willingly.
Accomplice prevents penalties
The absence of penalties against referees is due to complicity in FIFA Development Office in Jordan, which closely monitors the sporting process and football to be reported later to FIFA, according to Muhannad Dibba.
Meanwhile, international referee Shaker Hamidi said, the absence of penalties in Syrian football federations was due to the arrival of Brigadier Farouk Bouzo to decision-making positions in the AFC and FIFA.
As for the steps taken by FIFA and the AFC in case of corruption, they send independent fact-finding committees to look into the incidents, and they are absolutely free to expand in each investigation process.
Since the establishment of the Development Office in the Jordan Football Association (JFA) by FIFA (its headquarters was chosen to be near the Levant and West Asia regions), no investigations have been conducted because the office was tainted by corruption, according to al-Atrash.
Opinion Poll: who is responsible for corruption in refereeing?
Enab Baladi had conducted a poll on its official “Facebook page” about who is responsible for corruption in refereeing in the Syrian football. the results were as follows; 68 percent of voters, whose number amounted to 300, considered that responsibility falls on the sporting bodies and sporting clubs, while 32 percent blamed referees.
من هو المسؤول عن فساد التحكيم في الرياضة السورية؟
Where do Syrian referees stand in world championships?
Throughout the history of football, several international tournaments and important matches have been officiated and refereed by Syrian referees. Previously, Syrian referee Farouk Bouzo refereed matches in the 1978 World Cup championship. In addition to Jamal al-Sharif referee who officiated the 1994 World Cup championship, proceeded by the late referee Fawzi Tello as an assistant referee in the 1966 World Cup qualifiers in a match between Turkey and Portugal along with late referee Rashad Hawasli.
However, for years Syrian referees have not participated in the refereeing international matches.
International referee Abdullah al-Nasser told Enab Baladi that for Syrian referees to officiate international matches they need strong presidents of SFF and the Referees Committee, in addition to good international connections, especially when they have good reputations, they can easily promote a positive image about Syrian referees to the globe.
Throughout its history, the SFF had good ties with both FIFA and the AFC Referees’ Committee thanks to Brigadier Farouk Bouzo, who contributed in improving the image of Syrian referees globally and continually, as al-Nasser put it. He also justified this through the participation of former international referee Jamal al-Sharif in three World Cup Finals namely in 1986, 1990, and in 1994.
International referee Shaker Hamidi agrees with al-Nasser, and added that until 2010, Syria had six “elite” referees at the continental level, thanks to Farouk Bouzo who managed to promote a good image about Syrian referees abroad.
Muhannad Dibba believes that previously Syria was present in Arab, Asian, and International federations, which is no longer the case, since it has no representation due to the weakness of the current personnel, and therefore an absence of referees.
Dibba added that lack of development in the refereeing system along with the corruption incident of 2009, as well as lack of talents, let alone the spread of patronage-based relationships, all have urged continental and international federations to lose faith and confidence in Syrian refereeing.
Meantime, Nader al-Atrash said that the absence of referees of international forums comes as a result of sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime as well as referees’ poor performance in recent years.
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