Muhannad Alfakeer knows what he's about to say is barely believable to an outsider, but he proceeds to say it nonetheless.
"You won't believe me, but there have been times when bombs have hit one of our cities causing significant damage and considerable deaths. But afterwards — when the ambulances have come and the paramedics have done their jobs — things have gone back to normal. Life has continued. What can we do? Go to our homes, lock our doors and hide? This was our situation," says Alfakeer as he tries to put into context the situation his country, Syria, has faced over the last few years.
In a country ravaged by a civil war since 2011, this has come to represent the new normal.
It's a word Alfakeer says a lot. Normal.
"This is our life. We want to live it. We want to love, we want to work, we want to meet with others, and we want to talk freely."
In this state of newfound normalcy, Alfakeer says he even fled his home on the outskirts of Damascus when things got really bad, and it was only after five years of living with his parents in central Damascus that he was able to return.
"I lived in a very hard area and I had to leave my house for five years. I've returned now to my house, but the things I've seen are frankly unbelievable. Things happened in Syria everywhere in every city. What can I say about this war? This wasn't an unbelievable war. But some things happened which were like a nightmare. Like a nightmare, yes," says Alfakeer, who currently serves as the Technical Director at the Syrian Arab Federation for Football, besides being an AFC Technical Committee member.
Despite everything, Alfakeer finds solace in humour. "When I went back to my house after five years, there was some damage. But most of the house was okay. You cannot say that about the windows and the doors," he says as he allows himself a laugh.
The Syrian conflict, which began in 2011, began as protests against unemployment and lack of political freedom under President Bashar al-Assad. The protests soon mushroomed into armed unrest, before eventually ballooning into a free-for-all civil war with Assad's forces on one side, jihadist forces like the Islamic State on the other, Kurdish separatists on yet another side while armed opposition forces fighting Assad's army make up another angle of the complicated problem that is Syria.
The result: as many as 3.6 lakh documented deaths until August 2018, according to the UK-based organisation, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The figure varies wildly according to government sources.
With all of the country suffering considerably as a civil war raged, football was no exception, limping its way around, if not stopping completely.
"To speak about eight years of civil war is not easy for any country," says Alfakeer, who is in Mumbai to attend a FIFA workshop for Technical Directors. "This war destroyed everything in Syria! It destroyed the people, destroyed the environment at games, destroyed stadiums and it destroyed the sport. It wasn't easy for us to come back again."
Yet, he says, the football league in Syria continued even during the worst of times, albeit in a two-month format and in just two cities, Damascus and Latakia. The league expanded to five cities by 2015 and currently is hosted in six cities, with the 14 participating teams getting a chance to play home and away.
"Our football league never stopped in these eight years. We play football every day in our country. A few years ago our football has seen a lot of turmoil during matches and even during training sessions. We have lost many players, many coaches, many people in football because of this. In fact, we lost many junior players from Al-Jaish and Al-Wahda because of bombs. But now for the last two years, everything is okay. Damascus is completely safe. The region around Damascus is completely safe. Aleppo, Hamas, Homs, all of these, safe! In Syria, we have 14 cities. 12 of them are now completely safe. Just Idlib and Rakka are out of control. We hope we will regain control of them again.
"But our task now is to rebuild our football to bring it back to the level it has to be at. We are working on improving grassroots football, especially the tournaments for age group categories."
He adds that one of the unspoken casualties of the civil war was women's football.
"If you search for pictures on the internet, you will see that the stadiums back home are now full with fans.
"Football for Syrians is life. Football is what is bringing people together again in Syria. Even in the middle of the world ever always thousand 2000 people watching matches in the stadium even if they were bombs or explosions or things like that."
One of the criticisms of the national football team is that it is a vehicle employed by Assad to give the impression that things are back on track in Syria.
Alfakeer believes that the national team is a symbol of hope for a nation torn by war.
"The national team brings the fans together again and also bring players who had gone away from the country back to Syria again," he says.
The Syrian national team — which will be playing a friendly against India in the lead up to the AFC Asian Cup 2019 in UAE — is currently ranked 74th in the world, much higher than the 114th spot they held back when the conflict began in 2011. In between, they have also had to endure the agony of missing the cut to make their debut at the FIFA World Cup twice — in 2014, they were disqualified from competing in the qualification stage for fielding an ineligible player while in 2018 they lost a playoff to Australia courtesy a goal in extra-time.
Alfakeer adds that as the country’s football looks to heal itself at the moment, the biggest concern is funding.
"We have many problems, the first problem is that our association is not rich. For eight years we received no money from FIFA or AFC. Of course, there were times when they paid for our travel and for flights and for stay during matches. Right now, AFC is paying for our foreign coach, Bernd Stange, who is from Germany. And they are also paying for our equipment.
"But we need more money to develop our football. The other problem right now hurting Syrian football is the infrastructure; the war destroyed all the fields in Syria. We need to rebuild our sports centres and our stadiums.
"The most important thing for us is that we have a lot of talent. You can see that even in the boys and the girls playing football in the streets.
"Besides we also have the love of football."
That is a state of normal for Syria that even the war couldn't take away.
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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2018 12:09:05 IST