In the hotel where I’m staying in Amman there’s a young boy, Marouane, who’s constantly buzzing about the place – performing magic tricks, dancing the traditional Arab Dabkeh and eager to learn English and teach me Arabic.
A happy kid but one that’s come from a hard place.
He arrived with his mother a month ago from Syria after his father had been killed in the conflict ravaging that country; a civil war that has so far claimed 30,000 lives and seen a stream of refugees flee into Jordan as well as Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.
Official estimates put the number of refugees at 300,000 – almost half of whom are children or teenagers, with that number rising by 2,000 people every day.
Against this backdrop football seems almost a trivial pursuit but the game, at least to some degree, is still going on.
While the Syrian Premier League has been ‘suspended’ since May one club side, Al Shorta, was still involved in the latter stages of the AFC Cup tournament and has continued to compete, albeit with home matches moved to neutral venues.
On Wednesday the club’s run finally came to an end when it was beaten in the quarter-finals of the competition by Thai side Chonburi and after watching that match I was invited to the hotel where the team was staying.
There I had dinner with the side’s captain, Qusay Habib, a polite, well-spoken man who talked candidly of the horror affecting his country.
“It’s not safe now in Syria, it’s not safe in Damascus, it’s not safe in all of Syria.”
“You know, for us, it’s remarkable that we could reach this level. With this problem we arrived at this level so it’s good for us – in Syria now you can’t train, you can’t arrange matches, you can’t play matches and you can’t go outside to play matches, there are too many problems in Syria.”
Those problems have also deeply affected football; once proud clubs such as Al Karamah (2006 Champions League runners-up) and Al Ittihad - from the cities of Homs and Aleppo which have borne the brunt of much of the fighting – have been shut down.
A small number of players have found clubs abroad - not all though, as Habib explained, were so lucky.
“At least one player from Aleppo has died, I don’t know how but I just heard he’s died. He was about to come here to Jordan to play with the Al Faisaly club and he died.”
Habib is a big name in Syrian football: a highly-rated midfielder who was a member of the national team at the most recent Asian Cup in Qatar and already captain of his club side.
When I put it to him that sportsmen are often made a target during conflict throughout the region, his response was delivered in an optimistic, rather than forceful, tone.
“Now we must return to Damascus by bus. It’s three hours from here in Amman and I think we’ll be OK. You know, we are football players but sometimes you are unlucky. Maybe we will fight with the Free Army but, Inshallah, we will be OK.”
Al Shorta is the team of the Syrian Police and as such, logic suggests, is firmly behind the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whom US President Barack Obama described on Tuesday as “a dictator who massacres his people.”
Habib, though, insists his job is just to play football and not get caught up in politics, but the daily struggle to survive is biting hard.
Already fluent in English, he’s decided to start studying Japanese because he must try to make a future somehow in a country where he says everybody has to work four jobs just to get by.
“I just hope for our country that this can finish. I want it finished today, you know things are now so hard. I don’t really have any money, now the club gives me just enough to eat, to survive, but it’s a big problem in Syria.”
“No clubs have money and nobody is watching football, now everybody just they watch the news. People think, there are problems today, what are the problems tomorrow? It’s like this.”
Habib concedes that Syrian football may take a generation to recover, with the league not expected to return for several years even after the fighting has quelled.
“If now the problems finish maybe even after 2 or 3 years there is no league in Syria and these players are finished. This is the problem in the player’s mind – do I want to play football or do I want to leave Syria?”
Against this backdrop the Syrian FA has decided to make Al Shorta the de-facto national team and with perhaps just a handful of additions elsewhere the side will represent the nation in Kuwait at December’s West Asian Championships.
That is, if the situation remains relatively stable in Damascus, which is the only city where the side can train safely.
“In Damascus, we have problems but at least you can walk to go to training but around Damascus, sure there are a lot of problems.”
“But sometimes even in Damascus … boom … you have a bomb.”
With the club bowing out of the AFC Cup the foreign players at Al Shorta – including Brazilian Geilson, a former teammate of Robinho at Santos - have already decided to leave, doing so directly from Jordan. But for the locals, that’s not a ready option.
“Sure, I want to leave, too many people are suffering in Syria. I’d love to play for a big club in the Asian Champions League and show how I can play but my family is all in Syria.”
“Every day I worry about them and when I’m away all the time I call and ask is Damascus safe or are there problems. Hamdullah, we don’t have any problems.”
As dinner finishes and I ponder my life in the ‘west’ Qusay, an impressive man of 25, whose only wish is to play football in peace, reminds me just how hard that is in a country that’s being torn apart.
“When our country quietens down then maybe we can play again. I want my country to be safe but you don’t know how things are; one day you can walk to training and next to a car, if you are unlucky, boof.”
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