It was a game they had to win, against an opponent they had to beat for more reasons than one. Syria’s under-16 side stand to attention as their national anthem is played, prior to final group game in the AFC Championship in Bangkok, Thailand last year.
They had already overcome huge obstacles to be there. Since 2011 the country had sunk into a multi-layered and inexorably vicious civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. More than seven million people have been internally displaced. A further four million have fled the country, with refugees living in camps in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, or risking everything with human traffickers on the journey to Europe.
The Syrian football league, meanwhile, has somehow continued, moving to the relatively safer surroundings of the capital Damascus which is still under government control. But the war has taken its toll. The mass bombing of cities like Homs and Aleppo has killed dozens of players, with several others joining the rebels in their fight against the forces of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
Several more have been jailed for allegedly supporting the rebels, while a number of former international players now play abroad, disgusted by the idea of playing for a team that represents the regime. One member of Syria’s under-16 squad was even killed by a bomb in the southern city of Homs in the run-up to the tournament in Thailand. No one knows whether the government or the rebels were responsible.
Yet somehow, Syria’s young footballers have thrived in recent years. They have qualified for several regional tournaments, reaching the quarter-finals of all but one in the under-16, -19 and -23 age groups since the war began. The under-23s even came within one match of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics.
And now they were in Thailand, about to play Iran in a match of huge significance.
A win would set the team on their way to the quarter-finals, and reaching the semi-final would secure a place at this autumn’s Under-17 World Cup in Chile.
And their opponents in this game? None other than Iran – the country blamed by many within Syria of providing arms, money and material support to keep Assad in power.
Captaining Syria’s under-16s is their playmaker, Mohammed Jaddou. “The Syrian national team is my country’s team, and it was an honour to play for such a team,” recalls Jaddou of the tournament.
Within a few minutes of the anthems finishing and the game kicking off, Jaddou broke free on the right after a perfectly weighted ball over the top split the defence. He had time to choose his spot and he drilled the ball low into the bottom right hand corner to give Syria the lead. They would go on to win 2-1, before dispatching Uzbekistan 5-2, with Jaddou scoring one and setting up another.
The midfielder was suspended for the semi-final. In his absence Syria lost 7-1 to Korea, but it was enough for them to reach the finals in Chile. Jaddou smiles sadly when he thinks of Chile…because it’s an achievement he will never get to savour.
“When we qualified for the world championship, I tried to resist and forget all the bad things that happened back in my country that affected me,” he says.
“But I reached a point that I couldn’t stand it any more.”
Escape from Syria
Jaddou is sitting in the kitchen of his new home; a clean, bright but bare wooden-built house in a small village in southern Germany. He lives with five other Syrians, including his father and uncle, who also fled their homeland.
Despite his importance to the under-16 team, and the attraction of taking part in a tournament that in the past has earmarked the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Landon Donovon as stars for the future, Jaddou and his family embarked on a terrifying, two-month journey to escape Syria. First they went overland to Turkey, and then they travelled by boat to Italy, across the Mediterranean Sea – a journey that, according to the International Organization for Migration, has cost almost 2,000 lives this year.
“I won’t be able to forget it no matter how hard I try,” Jaddou says of the voyage that nearly cost him his life. “We saw death with our own eyes.”
Jaddou grew up in the coastal city of Latakia and by the age of eight his talent had been spotted by local club Hutteen, who play in the Syrian Premier League.
“I stopped giving my school much importance and only cared about playing football,” he says of the brief few years he remembers playing football before the civil war began. “I loved football more than I loved my parents!”
But as the war began to engulf the country, it became harder and harder for him to travel from the coast to Damascus, through a patchwork of constantly shifting territory controlled by the government, the rebels and various groups aligned with the so-called Islamic State. His bus to training was attacked on several occasions.
“Shootings and battles between the government and the opposition were taking place and we got caught up in the crossfire,” he says. “Missiles fell around our bus and they opened fire on us.
“The bus driver started driving as fast as possible so that he can leave the area and we also had to take cover under the chairs in the bus because otherwise snipers could take us out.”
A team-mate, and Jaddou’s best friend, 15-year-old Tarek Ghrair was killed during a mortar attack in Homs prior to the tournament in Thailand. Jaddou keeps a picture of his mangled body on his phone. “I cried for two days,” he says. “He wasn’t a friend. He was a brother.”
In the fog of war, Jaddou had been viewed with suspicion by both sides. He claims to have been threatened by the rebels, who accuse anyone representing Syria of being complicit with the regime, and the government itself, but also says: “The government used to threaten to end my career and punish me if I didn’t show up for a training camp. They also threatened to call me a deserter if I ever left the team.”
The regime had form in this area, most noticeably in the case of Abdelbasset Saroot, the so-called “Singing Goalkeeper of Homs.”
Saroot was the Syrian under-20 goalkeeper and played for Al Karama of Homs, then the most successful team in the Syrian league. They dominated the professional game domestically and even reached the Final of the Asian Champions League in 2006. Yet by 2011 Homs was seen as the capital of the revolution against President Assad, and Saroot had left the team and taken to the streets, using his phenomenal singing voice to recite religious and patriotic songs in front of small crowds that grew from a few hundred to tens of thousands.
Saroot soon became a target for the regime and he survived several assassination attempts – a story that has been told in the award winning documentary Return to Homs. He is believed to still be alive, a figurehead for the faltering uprising.
Another goalkeeper for played for both the national team and Al Karama is Mosab Balhous, who was jailed for “sheltering armed gangs and possessing suspicious amounts of money”, according to news channel Al Arabiya.
Balhous was later released and, amazingly, allowed to rejoin the team. He even shook President Assad’s hand when the team was invited to the presidential palace after Syria won the 2012 West Asian Championship, their first ever piece of silverware. Balhous is now team captain and played in Syria’s 6-0 demolition of Afghanistan in their opening qualifier for the 2018 World Cup.
However, the pressure and the fear of playing football in Syria got too much for the teenage Jaddou.
Earlier this year he tried to fly to Germany, a country he had dreamed of playing in since he was a child, but he was barred from getting on the flight and told that the entire team that was due to play in the Under-17 World Cup Chile had been placed on a no-fly list. It was then that Jaddou’s father sold his house, raising the $13,000 needed to pay people-smugglers to first cross overland into Turkey and then by boat across the Mediterranean to Italy.
The boat was overloaded. More than 130 men and women – young and old, healthy and the infirm alike – were crammed onto the 70-foot long vessel.
Six hours after the boat had left the Turkish coast it began to sink.
“We had to throw everything away – food, clothes and belongings – to keep the boat afloat,” says Jaddou, who recalls that the men and boys had to stay awake and bail water out of the boat with their bare hands.
“Not even for a second were we able to sleep. If we did we would eventually drown.”
By the time the Italian military spotted the boat – now with no electricity and no rudder – off the coast of Sicily, Jaddou had been at sea for five days and five sleepless nights.
“That was the third time in which I was so close to death but I survived.”
On arriving in Italy, Jaddou travelled north through the country, with his father and uncle, avoiding the police until they reached Milan. They slept rough at the city’s train station before spending the last of their money paying a trafficker to drive them to a refugee center in Munich. From there they were eventually housed in the hills outside the small town of Oberstaufen, near both the Austrian and Swiss border.
Today, Jaddou is training with Ravensburg, a team who play in Germany’s fifth division. The club’s under-19 side has excelled in recent years, and many players have made the step up to play for nearby Bundesliga members Freiburg.
“We decided to invite him without knowing what to expect,” says Markus Wolfangel, coach of the club’s under-19 team, as he watches Jaddou train. “We were very surprised from the performance of Mohammad.”
Jaddou, for the moment at least, is safe. However, he fears being deported from Germany and has a hearing in a few months to find out whether he can stay. His biggest fear, though, is for his mother and two brothers who remain in Syria.
“I want to start as fast as possible so that I can take them away from that place filled with destruction, kidnapping, and insults and bring them here to Germany where it is safe,” he says.
“It’s probable that I hear of their death any minute now. My brothers are young, they could be kidnapped easily.”
Jaddou’s ambition, he says, is to play for a “top European club” in the Bundesliga or elsewhere. He dreams of one day playing against his hero Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet as far-fetched as that might seem at the moment, he still believes that scenario is more likely than him ever returning home.
“Syria is being completely razed to the ground,” he says.
“Football in Syria is gone.”
By James Montague