A Ball, a Team, a War and a Dream

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A Ball, a Team, a War and a Dream

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Two players of the Syrian national team talk during a match against Thailand.

By Anthony Kristensen, Francis Howell North High School

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He’s a stocky man, sporting a Barcelona soccer jersey with the name “MESSI” and the number 10 printed on the back. He greets everyone he encounters with a smile on his face, living life to the fullest. However, as he sits at a Panera Bread Company table in St. Louis, he knows that this is not home. In fact, home is far away. Home is 6,383 miles away, in Damascus, Syria, where he lived until the outbreak of civil war, which he fled four years ago to find a new life in St. Louis. His name is Majed Abu Jaib (pronounced mah-jid ah-boo jieb). He doesn’t have much, but he does have soccer, and a team to cheer for.

Today, this team represents a nation that has been struck by civil war: a war that has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people as the bloody fight between government forces, the Islamic State and numerous rebel factions has turned the once peaceful nation into the largest bloodbath in the modern era. This is the story of the Syrian national soccer team, also known as the Eagles, as they fight to qualify for their first appearance in the FIFA World Cup.

The war-torn nation’s soccer team, currently ranked number 114 in the world, according to the FIFA World Rankings, is not letting the conflict get in the way of their path. In fact, this is their motivation: to bring much-needed joy to the people of Syria.

“As a people, we would be so happy [if they qualified],” Majed said. “We would be so proud, as any country who has never been in the World Cup. We would be so proud of our team, and we don’t care how well they’d do in the World Cup, we just care that we got to the World Cup.”

As the team prepares for the final phase of the Asian World Cup qualifying campaign, not only will they have the backing of the people that call the battleground their home, but they will also have confidence due to their form in previous matches.

In the second round of the qualifying campaign, Syria placed second in their group, finishing only four points behind the heavy group favorites in Japan. The heavy underdogs are facing off in Group A against China, Iran, Qatar, South Korea and Uzbekistan for the group’s two guaranteed spots in the 2018 World Cup, with the third place team going into a home and home playoff with the third place team from Group B. The winner of the playoff will go on to face off against the fourth place team from North and Central America. Currently, Syria sits in fourth place, after a 1-0 defeat against Uzbekistan, a 0-0 draw against South Korea, a 1-0 win against China and a 1-0 loss against Qatar. Their next game will be at ‘home’ against Iran on Nov. 15, who currently sit on top of the group.

“We look at each stage differently, we look at all the teams differently,” Salah Shahrour, Syrian national team defender, said via Facebook Messenger from Lebanon. “Hopefully we play our best in this stage. Iran and [South] Korea will be very hard to face.”

For fans, following the team’s journey may be a difficult task. Not only do they have to deal with the daily horrors of the massive civil war, but the team’s home games are played in a nation far from home. The Eagles played their “home” games at Al-Seeb Stadium in Seeb, Oman, in the second phase of qualifying, and they currently play in Malaysia, where every goal that they score is met by a deafening roar of silence, as the fans are nowhere near the stadium that seems to be a world away from the fallout and bloodshed of their home nation.

“I feel very, very sad about what’s happening in my country right now,” Shahrour said. “For me to not be playing for my fans in my country, that affects us in a negative way.”

As the team continues to push toward qualification, they aren’t only playing for their own hopes and dreams of playing in the World Cup. They’re not playing for their own personal glory or for their own careers but for something much bigger than themselves. They are fighting to represent the people of the war-torn nation on the international stage.

“The war in Syria doesn’t affect how we look at soccer,” Shahrour said. “It doesn’t affect how we look at any title. We will try to get there for our fans because they were with us no matter what.”

If the Eagles are able to break through the group and qualify for the World Cup, it would bring much needed joy to the people of Syria. They could finally have something other than the destruction of the civil war. However, Majed states that even if the team does qualify, it won’t bring about much change in the country, due to the current situation across the battlefield that he calls his home.

“Of course it will make [the Syrian people] happy,” Majed said. “But, still, there is something happening in the country which is the worst thing in the history.”

As the war and the destruction keeps the overall morale of the people low, there are still other factors that play into the atmosphere of the nation. Mostly, it is the divisiveness that has cast its dreary shadow over the country. As the government and rebel forces continue to battle for control of the battered nation, the average citizen is left in the crossfire, with some supporting the government and others joining the ranks of the rebel forces. The Syrian national team is operated by the government, which, according to Majed, is why the conditions in the nation and the severity of the war are unlikely to change if the Eagles are able to qualify for the World Cup.

“In my country’s situation, it’s the government against their own people,” Majed said. “I don’t think that [qualifying for the World Cup] will change a lot.”

However, despite the war, the divisiveness and the violence, the team continues to work toward their final goal: to qualify for the world’s premier soccer tournament. They are not only looking to accomplish qualification in the wake of the war, they are playing for the people of the country, to bring some joy to a nation that has been pillaged by the grips of a war that has left the streets of the once peaceful nation drowning in blood. They are playing to try and bring joy to the fans that have supported them from the beginning. They want to get to the World Cup for the people of Syria.

“For our team to play in the World Cup, it will be a very proud thing for us and our fans in Syria,” Shahrour said. “We are all one body, one heart for representing Syria and the fans.”

Read the original story here.