Citizens of a country supporting another team or even the opposition is hardly a new or rare concept. Many in Northern Ireland prefer to offer their support for the Republic; in Crimea, loyalties are split over Ukraine and Russia, and so on.

In Syria the divisions are more acute, and don’t run purely along ethnic lines. There is widespread dislike of the national football team as it is seen as Bashar al-Assad’s baby. And this scepticism surfaced during Syria’s shock run in the World Cup qualifiers, culminating in a two-leg play-off against Australia last November.

That’s understandable when some of the national team previously dedicated their success in the campaign to the dictator.

The AFP news agency reported that Khair Ali al-Daoud got together with 10 of his friends in Idlib to watch the match and cheer on Australia in the second leg in Sydney.

“I was watching the Syrian team’s matches because I wanted them to lose and I was supporting all the teams that played against them.”

Such comments are hardly surprising from someone forced to evacuate the previously opposition-held part of Aleppo last year.

“I’m happy they’re out of the tournament … and God willing there will be a free Syrian team that represents all Syrians in all international matches,” Daoud added.

Another twenty-something said he could never support the “team of barrels”, referring to the barrel bombs that Assad’s government is accused of using in opposition areas. Dictators have always used football as, well, a political football. The Argentinian junta used the 1978 World Cup (which they hosted) to portray the country as a contented stable place, and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s sons controlled the sport in Libya, a reason why Saadi Gaddafi somehow shrugged off his averageness to play for the national team and gain a contract with Serie A side Perugia.

Many of those affected by the seven-year war, however, put their hatred of the Damascus regime aside to root for the national team in its quest to qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

Some even saw it as a unifier in a bitterly divided country. That feeling extended to at least two of the players: Firasal al-Khatib vowed in 2012 to never play again for Syria as long as the regime continued to target civilians in airstrikes, but returned in early 2017 as Syria progressed. Omar Al Somah was out of the team for a similar amount of time for the same reasons.

Strangely, goalkeeper Mosab Balhous was jailed early in the conflict for allegedly helping to shelter rebels. But after being released he later joined the national side, presumably having been “rehabilitated” by Assad’s goons.

But accusations of being the regime’s team are hard to shake off; at a press conference before one qualifying game, the coaching team wore white T-shirts with pictures of the president.

In Damascus and in other cities, supporters congregated to cheer on the side against Australia. The AFP reported that universities and workplaces were emptier than normal as squares and public spaces were packed with supporters and red shirts of the national team sold out.

Lowly ranked, and with hopes lower

Syria weren’t tipped to do anything in the campaign to get to Russia, and that view was compounded when they started with some mixed results in the second Asian qualifying round; easy wins over Singapore, Afghanistan and Cambodia were offset by two big defeats against Japan. All Syria’s home games at this stage were played in Oman, for obvious reasons.

For the third round, their ‘home’ games were now played in Malaysia and they overcame the neutral ground handicap, with just 350 people in attendance against Uzbekistan, as an injury time penalty secured a 1-0 win in a crucial game.

It was another late goal against Iran in Tehran that secured their passage into the play-offs; Al Somah striking late into injury time, with the last act in fact, to gain a 2-2 draw and finish third in the group, ahead of the Uzbeks who also had 13 points, on goal difference. After struggling in the first seven games, scoring just twice, they got seven in the final three; Al Somah and Al Khatib playing a pivotal role in the turnaround. The Qasioun Eagles also drew with South Korea and beat China and Qatar at this stage.

But against Australia, in their 19th and 20th games of the two and a half year campaign, their fighting spirit was not enough. Omar Al Somah gave them hope with a late goal for a 1-1 draw in the first leg in Krubong, south of Kuala Lumpur, and Somah netted for Syria early in the return leg in Sydney, only for the Aussies to level through Tim Cahill and the former Everton star headed in the decisive goal in extra time. Should they have made it through this stage, the Syrians would have faced Honduras for a spot in Russia.

Destruction abounds

It was surprising that Syria got that far. The war has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Football hasn’t been immune to the ongoing killings and violence.

Reportedly, more than 100 professional footballers have been “disappeared” by regime forces, subject to torture in Assad’s notorious prisons.

Zakaria Youssef, who played for Al-Ittihad FC, was killed in government shelling in a neighbourhood of Aleppo in 2012. Others have fled the war-torn country and found both safety and clubs to play for.

And then there have been players who have refused to play for “Assad’s team” such as promising goalkeeper Abdul Baset al-Sarout who turned rebel commander and is a hero to many.

The 16-team national League somehow survives but in a far smaller geographical area, covering territory the government exerts control over. But while most teams play out of Damascus and coastal Latakia, as the regime has retaken rebel-held areas, football has begun to expand again – even to ravaged Aleppo.

The problem is that there is no money: in the Syrian FA’s coffers, in the teams, and, of course, in the players’ pay packets. This alone explains why most national team players are earning a wage in other Middle Eastern leagues or East Asia.

This lack of money and safety concerns means most games only see a few hundred supporters; the pitches are pitiful and facilities basic.

Pioneers for Middle East football

Surprisingly, Syria were one of the forerunners in the Middle East, following the example of Palestine and Egypt who contested the pre-war qualifiers, entering both the 1950 and 1958 World Cup campaigns.

After losing 7-0 to Turkey in November 1949, they promptly withdrew to avoid any further embarrassment. In 1958 they were beaten 2-1 over two legs by Sudan. But no Syrian team took to the field in a World Cup Qualifier until 1973 when goal difference separated them and Iran in group qualifying.

Prior to the current campaign, Syria’s best run was in the mid-80s when they were two games away from unlikely qualification. The Syrians firstly topped their preliminary group with a pair of wins over North Yemen and a win and a draw against Kuwait, who had made the 1982 finals in Spain. The Syrians defeated Bahrain 2-1 on aggregate before coming undone against Iraq in November 1985, a 3-1 defeat destroying their hopes.

In 2014 they beat lowly Tajikistan 6-1 over two legs, only to be disqualified through the use of an ineligible player, George Mourad, who had played twice for his adopted Sweden five years earlier.

While the Asian Cup has failed to see Syria progress beyond round one, and the Olympic Games been beyond them, although they came close to making it to London in 2012, the side has had some success in regional competitions, taking out the Pan-Arab Games (1957), the Mediterranean Games (1987 – beating France B in the final), and most recently the West Asian Championship (2012, defeating Iraq in the final).