MEE: Syria’s World Cup story, Brutal politics behind the beautiful game

A Syrian international warms up before a game in Jordan in 2012.
The Syria under 23 team train before a match in Amman, Jordan. ©James Montague.

World Cup qualification always throws up an underdog story or two, and the Road to Russia 2018 was no different. But perhaps the most complex story was the Syrian national team’s incredible campaign.

This was a country crippled by war and exiled from home who, nevertheless, managed to reach the Asian play-off stage against Australia before being knocked out in extra time.

By any definition, this was an incredible achievement. Yet this wasn’t a typical underdog story. For those that wanted to see the removal of Syria’s president Bashar al Assad the team had come to represent the regime. Many players felt they could not represent the national team whilst he was still in power. Yet, as the rebel forces in the civil war crumbled, many Syrians – Assad including – had held up the national team as a symbol of unity rather than division.

It was a complex tale, and I wrote about it for Middle East Eye, which you can read here. 

I also wrote this longer piece on Syrian football and the civil war for World Soccer magazine back in 2015.

Copa90: From Syrian war to German wunderkind

A few weeks back I wrote a story for the New York Times about Mohammed Jaddou, the captain of Syria’s under 17 national team. At least he was. After captaining his team to a semi final finish in the 2014 AFC Championships (which qualified Syria for FIFA’s Under 17 World Cup finals in Chile next month), Mohammed fled the country, through the mountains of northern Syria into Turkey. From there he took a terrifying journey across sea in the hands of people smugglers, before being rescued off Sicily. He’s now in Germany, dreaming of Real Madrid.

I went back to Oberstaufen, the small town in southern Germany where Mohammed lives with his father and uncle, and made this film for Copa90 about his life, his escape and his hopes for the future.

New York Times: The refugees of St Pauli

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Last week I went to the Germany city of Hamburg. It’s pretty cool for a number of reasons, mainly because The Beatles went and learned their trade their for a debauched, “lost” 18 months amongst the strip clubs and dive bars of its red light district, the Reeperbahn. The other is FC St Pauli.

The Reeperbahn is part of St. Pauli, a district of the city that is known for its left wing politics, squaters, punks and anarchists. FC St Pauli has embraced its host’s radical identity. I first visited St Pauli in 2010 when I wrote a piece for CNN (including this video) where someone wrote the headline “The Coolest Club in The World”. It keeps getting cited as an example of how breathlessly enamoured foreigners can get with the club.

Still, I’d heard that FC St Pauli had planned to invite 1,000 refugees to their friendly game against Borussia Dortmund. So I went to the Millerntor Stadion and found a club who have been welcoming refugees to the club for ten years.

Here’s something I wrote for the New York Times about the club, its ultras and the refugees who are now FC St Pauli fans for life.  

And here’s a report for the BBC World Service’s World Football show, of me wandering around talking to refugees and increasingly drunk fans…