Syria footballers want to give countrymen something to cheer about
Lions be warned, Syria captain Malki says it's not just about football tonight
SYRIA v SINGAPORE
(Tonight, 11.55pm, Singtel TV Ch 109 (ELEVEN) & MediaCorp okto)
MUSCAT: He may have spent most of his life in Europe, but Syrian footballer Sanharib Malki's heart bleeds for his country of birth.
His country has been mired in a civil war for over four years, with over 300,000 people estimated to have lost their lives, and more than seven million displaced and forced into neighbouring countries.
Red Eagles skipper Malki, 31, emigrated to Belgium with his family as a child, and currently plays for Turkish top-tier club Kasimpasa.
Ahead of Syria's World Cup Group E qualifier with Singapore tonight, he told The New Paper yesterday that the national team plays every international game hoping to give their people a reason to smile.
"Everybody around the world only thinks bad things of Syria, and I'm really sad," said Malki, speaking at the team's City Seasons Hotel base yesterday.
"Even in Turkey, where I play now, there are so many refugees from Syria, and some people don't want to allow them in.
"But these people, my countrymen, are fleeing for their lives.
"What do you expect them to do? For them, it's either flee or get killed.
"As footballers, whatever we can do to make people see Syria in a positive way, we will do."
The fact Syria are playing their "home" game 3,000km away in Muscat, Oman, highlights the turmoil back home.
The team have not played at their Abbasiyin Stadium home ground in Damascus since December 2010, due to security reasons.
Said Malki: "Everybody in Syria has lost something.
"There are some players in the squad who've lost family members.
"Every time they take to the field, they play for the memories of their loved ones, to try and make them proud.
"Other people in Syria have lost their jobs, their houses.
"Even doctors, engineers, people who had a high quality of life... Everything is gone for them now."
The Syrian national team's ultimate goal is to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, and belief is high they can make it to the 2018 Finals in Russia.
They have not lost a single match in 2015, notching impressive wins over higher-ranked Middle East nations like Jordan and Oman while opening their World Cup qualifying campaign with a 6-0 thrashing of Afghanistan.
The World Cup target was what coach Fajr Ibrahim was dreaming about at yesterday's pre-match press conference, saying the achievement would "be a big gift to our people, especially with the (current) conflict."
Malki has another important and poignant ambition.
"My dream is to play a home game in Syria again, in front of stadium packed with our own fans," he said.
"I hope it can happen in my lifetime."