Syrians in Damascus collapsed into tears of disappointment Tuesday as their war-torn country’s hopes of qualifying for its first ever football World Cup were dashed during extra time against Australia.
But in opposition-held territory, where some Syrians feel the national team has become a symbol of a government they despise, there were those who cheered Australia’s 2-1 win.
The prospect of the Syrian team qualifying for football’s biggest contest brought thousands of cheering fans into public squares and cafes across government-held parts of the country, including the capital Damascus.
Excitement had been building for days, and students lobbied to have lectures rescheduled so they could watch the game, which kicked off in Sydney at noon Syrian time.
Vendors hiked prices for Syria kit as demand soared for the red, black and white strip of the national team, nicknamed the Qasioun Eagles.
Dana Abu Shaar, 18, skipped university classes to watch the match at a cafe in the capital.
She was still clutching a national flag in her hand as she glumly contemplated defeat after Australia scored a crucial second goal in the second half of extra time.
“I was very excited and I expected the Syrian team to win, but now there’s sadness and a lot of disappointment because we had reached a point where there was hardly anything between us and the championships,” she said, her voice cracking.
“It’s not just about football,” she added. “The Syrian people needed this kind of joy, even if it came through sports. The Qasioun Eagles were hope to us. This is a people that has lived seven years of war and was waiting for joy, even if it came through a goal.”
In the wake of the loss, Damascus streets emptied and shops closed early.
President Bashar al-Assad’s office issued a statement praising the team as “heroes” despite their defeat.
“You painted joy on the faces of all Syrians,” the presidency said.
Accountant Ramez Talawi, 29, dressed in the team’s red shirt emblazoned with the national flag, had taken a day off work so he could watch the match.
“The team managed to do something that politics and men of religion could not, which is to unify the Syrian people,” he said.
“It’s the national team and it united Syrians of all political opinions, loyalists and opposition.”
Cheering… for Australia
But many in opposition territory felt far from inclined to support the national team after some of its players dedicated their last win to Assad.
In Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold outside the capital, there was no sign of public support for the team, nor did fans gather in cafes to watch the match.
Khair Ali al-Daoud, 24, in the northwestern city of Idlib, got together with 10 of his friends to watch the match — and cheer on Australia.
“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,” he told AFP.
Daoud was among thousands of Syrians who evacuated the opposition-held part of Aleppo city last year under a deal that saw the government take full control after years of fighting.
“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,” he said.
Qasim Khatib, 26, watched the game on his phone with two friends, but said he could never support the “team of barrels”, referring to the barrel bombs that Syria’s government is accused of using against opposition areas.
“Of course I was supporting Australia. I don’t support the team of barrels, as we call it, because if they won, they would have dedicated their win to Assad, like last time.”
“This is the team of a killer of children, and it doesn’t represent Syria,” said Khatib in the town of Jabal Zawiya in Idlib province.
“I’m very happy that they lost, and don’t wish that they ever, ever win.”
But in Douma, an opposition-held town near Damascus, residents were divided.
“I was happy and sad at the same time,” said Youssef Shedid, 21.
“If our team had won, Syria’s name would have been talked about around the world. But we were sad also because the regime politicised the issue and presented the team as its own.”
Ali Ibrahim, 30, said he was saddened by the defeat.
“First of all, this team does not represent the regime, it represents Syria,” he said.
“If it represented the regime, we would have never supported it, because the regime is murderous and criminal. I was sad about the match because the team wanted to raise the name of Syria.”