Asia 50: How footballers can flourish in the face of war

War and upheaval have long been issues that have had an impact on football across Asia. Out of the devastation and destruction often come tales of elevated performance, inspired by a deep desire to lift others out of the gloom, as Michael Church explores...

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The list of nations adversely affected by the turmoil of warfare since the creation of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954 is substantial.

I lost many of my friends and relatives. I’m sad for the situation of the country

Some, like South Vietnam, no longer exist. Others, such as Lebanon, were so deeply affected by civil war it was hard to imagine any semblance of normality ever returning.

Syria, currently ravaged by its own complex conflict, falls into the latter category: a country where football would appear to be a long way from importance.

And yet the national team – backed enthusiastically by the country’s embattled president, Bashar Al Assad – has advanced to the final phase of Asia’s World Cup qualifying campaign for the first time in its history.

The ongoing conflict has taken a devastating toll on Syria. Photo: AFP

It should be a time of optimism and the heralding of one of the country’s finest footballing sons. Omar Al Somah has been tearing up the Saudi Arabian league over the last two seasons for Jeddah-based Al Ahli, finishing last year as the league’s top scorer and carrying his fine form into the Asian Champions League.

And yet Al Somah is nowhere to be seen on the continental stage for his country. Having made his support of the anti-Assad faction public, Al Somah – one of the most in-form footballers in the Middle East – is not being selected for Syria.

“I feel sad always when I remember Syria,” Al Somah told the Saudi press recently. “I lost many of my friends and relatives due to the crisis there. I’m sad for the situation of the country and I hope that this will end soon and that my country will return to what it was before.”

Al Somah, a 27-year-old striker who previously played in his homeland before moving to Kuwait, has proven himself to be among the most fearsome forwards in the Middle East, scoring 22 times in the 2014-15 Saudi season and impressing with his eye-catching mix of physicality and skill.

He is one of a number of players from throughout the war-affected nations of the region to have put the distractions from home aside to flourish on the field of play.

Syria proved too strong for the Lions in Singapore late last year

Neighbouring Iraq has been in turmoil in one way or another since Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait back in August, 1990. Conflict has defined the nation from as long ago as 1980 and the start of the bitter Seven Year War with Iran.

Since Saddam’s army was forced back over its own border the country has had to deal with upheaval, whether it came in the shape of aerial bombardments, United Nations sanctions, invasion or sectarian warfare.

Few nations have had to deal with the tribulations faced by Iraq over the last three decades and yet the country continues to produce some of Asian football’s most impressive performers.

Two Iraqi players have already been named in our Asia 50 countdown, with one more still to come.

The strife-addled situation has acted as motivation to bring cheer to their compatriots; Ali Adnan has become one of the standard-bearers of a new generation inspired by the country’s against-the-odds 2007 Asian Cup victory, alongside the fine talents of Humam Tariq, Dhurgham Ismail and Mohannad Abdulraheem.

Adnan has impressed since moving to Serie A’s Udinese last summer and will be an important part of the Iraq team that attempts to qualify for the World Cup finals in Russia. Not unusually, he seeks to bring respite for his countrymen through his exploits on the field.

“We’ll be in the hunt right to the end of World Cup qualification and I’m convinced we’ll manage it,” he told FIFA’s official magazine recently. “Iraq only previously qualified for the 1986 final so it’s about time we got there again.

“We also owe it to our fellow countrymen, who have been associated with nothing but war and violence for many years now.”

Sport’s importance is often overemphasised, but for these players – inspired and driven by horror at home – football provides respite and hope, distraction and a desire for salvation that pushes them to levels they may never have attained otherwise.


Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo (unless stated)