When Jordan began their World Cup campaign back in July of 2011 memories of the previous summer’s final in Johannesburg were still fresh. European eyes were still firmly fixed on the business end of Euro 2012 qualifying and nowhere but in the most out-lying islands of the Pacific and the remotest out-posts of world football was anybody getting their boots dirty on the road to Brazil for 2014.
Nestled almost anonymously in the middle band of nations making up the qualifying pool in the Asian federation Jordan were spared the hassle of the preliminary round of games a month earlier, an unheralded and unnoticed place in the global game where Vietnam casually roll thirteen past a bewildered Macau and nobody bats an eyelid.
In their first tie Al-Nashāmā- the Chivalrous as they are known to their fans – dismantled Nepal 10-1 without much fanfare (or chivalry) before emerging from the next stage draw in a hostile group which included Iraq, China and scant hope that their ball would trouble the draw-master for the final round of qualifiers. A lot’s changed in two and half years.
In any other year Jordan’s success in making it to within a play-off of Brazil and a first appearance at the finals might have made headlines as a great sporting fairy-tale, but not this year. The pandemic crisis in the Middle East means that there is only one story coming out of the country as thousands of Syrian refugees flock across the northern border and into a community without the public infrastructure to bear them aid.
The UNHRC conservatively estimates that upwards of 600,000 displaced Syrians will be living within the Jordanian border by the end of the year as the war rumbles on, swelling the population by 25% and inciting civic unrest amongst neighbourhoods now scrambling to stretch scant resources across a network of dependencies it was never designed to provide for. So far the brittle infrastructures of public services and social security are taking the strain but only thanks to the support of the UN’s relief fund, and no-one in Jordan is under the illusion that current health and education provisions can continue to support the augmented population indefinitely, with or without subsidies from abroad. Football as a social tonic has rarely looked so impotent.
Much is made of the game’s potential to heal wounds and restore balance when circumstance or social policy deals the masses a bad hand, certainly when it comes to branding exercises and PR heists conducted out of Zurich or Nyon, but the noises made around the simple phenomenon of deprived and disenfranchised communities piecing things back together through football organised and governed on their own terms are less heralded.
In Jordan those communities, both native and those springing up in temporary camps as the refugee population swells, are being forced to improvise around the theme of providing for their young people a means towards distraction and escape, as the cry goes up for a creative outlet in and amongst the destruction.
In the major refugee camp in the northern district of Za’atari, home to around 130,000 displaced Syrians, sports teacher Muhammad Rashed is applying the skills he used to make a living in his old life north of the border to help build an environment in which the young victims of the civil war can do more than simply survive.
In reflecting on the challenges conquered as well as those still ahead he meshes a sense of pathos with a sincere and palpable hope that the days of the Za’atari camp can be the foundation of active healthy lives for these children: “Our task is to educate a new generation.” Three months ago Rashed’s young players kicked cloth bound up with string. Now they have real footballs and a real, flawed but hopeful community appearing around them in their adopted country.
Support is arriving from above too, with the launch last month of a joint venture between UEFA and the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP) to deploy qualified coaches to Za’atari to help ensure the work being carried out by Rashed and his neighbours isn’t happening in vain.
The involvement of the UNHRC, who take responsibility for the majority of the relief effort going towards propping up health, education and public services in Za’atari and its surrounding towns, shows those who are building this new community from the ground up that football is being taken seriously as part of an immersive project to make Jordan a receptive, hospitable and sustainable alternative to life in war-torn Syria.
And through this lens it’s possible to see how the success of Al-Nashāmā in their bid for a World Cup berth might still, for all the pomp and ceremony of the showpiece in Brazil, have the potential to impact positively on the grass-roots work to re-build communities.
If Jordan can do what as recently as 2011 seemed unthinkable and edge past Uruguay in their final two qualifiers next month it might just coincide with a new beginning for the thousands whose lives have been put on hold by physical devastation and mass relocation.
By Robert O’Connor