Syria: Divided Soccer Fans & A Deeply Divided Nation
Ostensibly, soccer is the most watched sport in the world and the World Cup denotes a global event that to a large extent evokes identity politics. Last week, Gerard Pique the prominent Catalan player who plays with the Spanish national team as well as Barcelona could not hold back his tears while telling reporters that he is a very proud Catalan and that he might surrender the National Team following a day in which the Catalonia region was engulfed by violence that erupted between voters and police. Well, this assures us that sport and politics cannot be separated, particularly in a war-torn country. In this vein, for the first time ever, Syria’s national soccer team reached the World Cup qualifying playoffs in mid-September. Although the team still had to win three more games in order to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia; the fact that Syria was able to reach the playoffs per se was a great triumph that was celebrated among Syrians. Not all Syrians however.
For many pro and anti-regime Syrians this event seems to emphasise national pride regardless of their political affiliations; both were celebrating one national symbol. Back home, main squares in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs were packed with fans cheering the team. Even on the online sphere, social media were abuzz with a hashtag that says Souriyya biylba’la al Farah (happiness suits you Syria). A song that is titled hy al farha sourriya (this joy is Syrian) was produced to support the team and interestingly many pro-and anti-Assad Syrians were sharing it. The lyrics stress the Syrian national identity; [we are going to win for the name of my country, your love unites us, lets hold hands…]. Although its three singers are known for their pro-regime stand, in the video clip renowned actors and actresses from both sides made appearances. Yet, on the other hand for some anti-Assad Syrians wining this game was considered a victory for the Assad regime as for them this team represents the regime rather than the country. They even dubbed the soccer team; the barrels bomb team (referring to usage of barrel bombs by the Assad forces). Well, politicizing sport is not a new phenomenon in Syria, because likewise the Labour Union; Farmers Union; Artists Union, even Women’s Union, Sport Union are all headed by the President of the state. Nor is the manipulation by the regime over the national sense of pride that catalysed from wining soccer games unprecedented. The official media vied to portray the game as a victory for Assad Syria whilst associating it with the advancement of the regime forces in Deir al-Zour with the comment sourriya tantaser (Syria is prevailing). And henceforth, regardless that some players have voiced their opposition against the regime (such as the prominent Omar al-Souma who scored the winning goal) for many anti-Assad Syrians this team represents Assad Syria.
Earlier in October, the Syrian team was defeated by Australia and took the flight home. Yet the heated debates among Syrians did not end. In essence, this soccer game did not only inflame debate among fans and stir up animosity between Syrians but more importantly it reminded us of the big questions of restoring national consensus; national identity; national pride and how they should be addressed in a post conflict Syria.
Well, the history of civil wars since the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between Sparta and Athens until today’s civil wars in Africa and the Middle East, tells us that it is almost impossible to reconstruct a national sense of identity and pride within the context of a security dilemma which is accompanied by the daily use of sectarian discourse directed from above. Throughout the Syrian war, political entrepreneurs have utilised material structure (e.g. arms and media) and also symbolic factors (e.g. flags and songs) to form a particular sense of national identity. However, amidst this polarisation a very slight sense of national consensus is operating from below, at the grassroots. Such as between those Syrians who fled Aleppo or Homs to Latakia where they opened businesses and established a temporary home. Also, myriad charitable networks quest to aid those affected Syrians in Homs, Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus. Although the networks are operating under the umbrella of the regime, but not all the volunteers agree with the regime’s policies. Ideally, this discourse from below should interact with discourse form above to construct a national consensus.
For sure, restoring national pride and reconstructing national identity are thorny issues and need much more efforts than reconstructing a destroyed infrastructure. Justice and accountability for war criminals are essential. Emphasising the shared history, culture and national symbols is vital too. Yet, for now, this could not happen due to realpolitik played by all states and state actors engaged in the Syrian drama. Nevertheless, until a post-conflict Syria sees the light, any opportunity that would boost national pride should not be wasted.
The enthusiastic Syrian commentator for the first round with Australia broke into tears after the historical goal that qualified Syria to the World Cup plays off while yelling ‘These are Syrians, no one would be able to stand in front of them when they are united’.
After seven years of bloody war, a myriad massacres, thousands of barrels bombs, millions of refugees and displaced, multiple usage of chemical weapons and almost half a million dead; Syrians look divided as ever and it seems that nothing would unite them. Hitherto, establishing a national consensus is still possible and could be accomplished by a firm strategy and patriotic Syrians who prioritise Syria over any self-interest.
*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.