Managers of the English football team have a tough job, poor darlings.
They have to cope with spoilt, headstrong players, and a wilful media out to make trouble. Their job is on the line if they don’t perform.
But conceivably not quite as tough as Syrian manager Fadi Dabas's, the manager of Syria.
For the last three years, he has been in charge of the national team in a country ravaged by war. Syria has no home matches. Its most important footballing city, Aleppo, was under siege for most of the last five years.
Football stadiums are all but empty because large crowds are too tempting a target for attack and FIFA sanctions means that no money comes into the game, notes Dabas. “It’s football without money. What can we do?”
The average professional footballer in Syria is lucky to get $1,000 a year.
This is a country where the highest paid player is on an annual contract of $30,000, considerably less than some English premier league players earn in a single afternoon.
Many members of the national team play abroad, mainly in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states.
The home match... played in Malaysia
And yet Syria has an outside chance of making it to next year’s World Cup finals in Russia for the first time in its history. How the Russians, Assad’s ally in the civil war, would love that to happen.
Results will have to go Syria’s way for it to have any chance. It must beat Qatar, one of President Bashar Assad’s bitterest opponents, in what promises to be a monumental contest this August.
But Syria has already accounted for China and Uzbekistan while holding Iran and South Korea to draws.
Mahmoud Almawas of Syria (L) is congratulated by his teammates after he scored a goal during the 2018 World Cup qualifying group A match between Syria and China at Shaanxi Stadium in Xi'an in October 2016 (AFP)
I went to see Fadi Dabas at the Damascus sports complex where he has an office. Though called the ‘manager’, his job is closer to what the British would call ‘director of football’ than coach.
How does he get the team together for practice? "That will have to wait to August. All the players are coming back here to prepared for the Qatar fixture to be played on 31st August."
Though in theory a ‘home’ match, it will be played in Malaysia, which has agreed to make a stadium available.
Out of pocket
The phone rings, and Dabas takes the call. It’s the head of the national football union with good news - confirmation that tomorrow’s game between the Damascus club of Al Muhafaza and Al Ittihad of Aleppo is on.
For much of the last five years, with Aleppo, the domestic leagues have been confined to a handful of matches in Latakia and Damascus.
With the ending of the siege at the start of this year, some normality is beginning to return. I ask Fadi Dabas, who used to be a defender in Syria’s domestic league, how much he gets paid.
The answer: nothing. “I am a volunteer. Sometimes I pay for the team, to help them.”
The TV screen in his little office – flanked between two copies of the Quran – is broken.
Fadi Dabas won’t be drawn when I ask him what he pays for. I later establish that he puts his hand in his pocket for equipment and even payments to players- who were given about $2,000 each after their famous victory over Uzbekistan.
He says: "It is a dream for any manager or any player to go the World Cup. We make all the Syrian crowds happy. We do this for all Syria. We will fight to the last moment to get to Russia.”
He declares that there is a national purpose behind the football team: “Football makes the government and the rebels come closer together.” And he thanks the government for providing some financial support.
Return to the squad
It is certainly true that the civil war has caused bitter divisions in Syrian football with several star players sympathising with the rebels when the uprising started in 2011.
One famous example was goalkeeper Abdel Basset al-Sarout from Homs, a rising star in the national squad when the conflict started. He abandoned football to join the uprising against Assad and became a rebel fighter and an icon for the rebellion.
Recently, the Syrian team received an unexpected boost when Firas Al Khatib, one of the country’s greatest ever footballers who declared his sympathy for the rebels in 2012, announced that he would return to the national squad.
Khatib, who was born in Homs and plays for a Kuwaiti team, declared that he would "accept naturally because it would be an honour for a sportsman to represent his country and his team".
Firas al-Khatib celebrates in January 2011 after scoring a goal for the Syrian national team against Japan during their Asian Cup group B football match at Qatar Sports Club Stadium in Doha (AFP)
Fadi Dabas is cautious when I raised the subject: “Everybody has his own personal reasons. He is a son of Syria. He wants to play under the Syrian flag."
As I left I asked Fadi Dabas what he thought of the enormous sums doled out to the managers of other national teams. “It’s natural. Everybody is worth what they get paid.
“It’s right for them. This is a professional thing. It’s business.”
There are those who would condemn Dabas for managing the Syrian team and thus providing support and comfort to the Assad regime which is hated by many of his fellow countrymen.
I can’t agree. Whatever view you take of the Syrian civil war which has caused so much horror and claimed countless lives, there’s no doubt that Fadi Dabas has the toughest job in world football.
By managing the Syrian squad through such a dreadful time, Fadi Dabas surely deserves the admiration of the footballing world.
- Peter Oborne was named freelancer of the year 2016 by the Online Media Awards for an article he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Omar Khrbin of Syria (R) and Morteza Pouraliganji of Iran head the ball during the 2018 World Cup qualifying football match between Syria and Iran at Tuanku Abdul Rahman Stadium in Seremban on 15 November 2016 (AFP).
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.