Mentally scarred by the turmoil at home after two-and-half-years of civil war, Syria’s national football team are hoping continued success on the pitch can give their compatriots small reason to cheer.
Syria, who beat Iraq to win the West Asian Championships for the first time in December, take on Singapore on Tuesday in an Asian Cup qualifying match as they attempt to reach the finals of the region’s premier tournament in Australia in 2015.
At Monday’s pre-match press conference, usually a place for journalists to ask about tactics and injuries, the bulk of questions were centred on the conflict in Syria, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and driven more than 2.1 million refugees out of their homeland.
“Nobody’s saying it but mentally you are affected,” Syria captain and striker Sanhareb Malki told reporters in Singapore.
“When you know a friend or family (member) dies, yeah some of the players’ family has died, so its really difficult for sure.
“The (players) talk, they look on the news. There’s an explosion and everyone watch how many dead for family. So everyday we hear, gun shots and things like that - it’s normal now in the country.”
Malki plays his club football in the Turkish top division with Kasimpasa after previous spells in Netherlands, Greece and Belgium, where he moved to in his youth.
His family have also left Syria, some following him to Turkey while the rest, like 540,000 others, fled to Jordan, who are also in the same qualifying group along with Oman.
Malki said he last returned to Syria in January 2011 when the team met up before heading to Qatar to take part in the last Asian Cup.
Two months later, peaceful pro-democracy protests hit Syria’s streets but they were quelled by troops using live ammunition and the trouble began.
Malki, though, remains in touch with his compatriots via social media and says a victory over Singapore is the minimum they deserve.
“A lot of fans are trying to give us support because everybody in Syria loves football you know. They follow us on Facebook, Twitter and these kind of things. Try to send us messages to encourage our team,” the 29-year-old said.
“For these kind of people, we will give everything, we will fight.”
Syria are ranked a lowly 143rd by world governing body FIFA and have never qualified for the World Cup.
Their hopes of reaching the Asian Cup are hindered by being forced to play home matches in Iran where Malik said only 100 people saw them draw with Jordan last time out after losing their opening match away to Oman.
Malik, though, pointed to the exploits of another war-torn Middle East nation finding success on the soccer field when asked what it would mean to come in the top two of the group and qualify for Australia.
“It would given happiness to the people at this tragic period for us at the moment. I think Iraq they did the same in 2007 and we need to try and do the same.”
Iraq qualified for the event in Southeast Asia before going on to beat regional soccer giants Saudi Arabia in the final and complete a fairytale win.
Singapore’s much travelled German coach Bernd Stange was in charge of Iraq during the American-led invasion in 2003 and had full sympathy with his Syrian counterpart Anas Makhlouf.
“I have the same experience with Iraq after the war. There is nothing left, not even football, no soccer balls, no equipment. It was very difficult, we couldn’t play any matches in Iraq,” Stange said.
“But the players were very, very motivated to play for their country, to show the people who suffer at home under difficult circumstances, that we are here, we want to deliver something and it was very dangerous to play against Iraq.
“Even at their most difficult time, they had their most successful period,” he warned, before predicting a tough encounter with Syria.
Makhlouf said those suffering at home would be the inspiration for Tuesday’s match.