Amid a brutal civil war, FIFA has banned Syria from playing in its home country for seven years. During trying national events, sports can be used as a way to unite divided communities. In Syria, however, soccer has been used to burn rather than build bridges.

 

The Syrian national soccer team has the total support of President Bashar Assad, a man who has committed war crimes against his own people to remain in power. Assad has used soccer on both the international and domestic levels as a political tool for support in the name of “national unity”; meanwhile, FIFA has repeatedly declined to investigate government interference with the team.

 

Spokesman for the Syrian National Soccer Team Bashar Mohammad told ESPN.com that the sport is “a dream that brings people together. It gives people a smile and helps them forget the smell of destruction and death.”

 

The reality could not be further from this fantasy.

 

Instead, families are torn apart in the name of sport. Stadiums once used to host football matches that gave hope for a united Syrian nation are now used as army bases and prisons to suppress the same people who once filled the stands. Players who use their platform for protest disappear or are subject to torture at the hands of their own government. According to Human Rights Watch, 38 Syrian soccer players have died as a result of the regime.

 

The Syrian team has forced players to choose between their morality and national pride as they must decide whether or not they want to represent an oppressive regime. The team plays its home qualifying games in a makeshift stadium nearly 5,000 miles from Damascus. The team is ranked 80th in the world. Despite these circumstances, Syria went into its match Tuesday night with the opportunity to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

 

Its opponent? Iran — a political supporter of the Assad regime.

 

The third round of qualifying in Asia is in round-robin format with two groups of six teams. The top two from each group automatically qualify for the World Cup, while the third-place team from each group plays the other twice to determine which will advance to the next round of qualifying. The team that scores the most goals over the two matches will advance to another two-game playoff in November against the fourth-place team from North American World Cup Qualifying.

 

Heading into Tuesday night, Iran had already qualified for the World Cup. With 14 points, South Korea was second in the group and set to play Uzbekistan, which was tied with Syria on points but behind in the group standings because of a goal differential. Syria would need to match Uzbekistan’s result against South Korea on Tuesday to advance. If both teams lose or draw, Syria advances to the Asian playoff against Australia. If both teams win, Syria advances to the World Cup.

 

After trailing deep into the second half, Syria tied the match against Iran 2-2 on a counterattack from nowhere in stoppage time. Shortly afterward, Uzbekistan tied with South Korea 0-0. The full-time whistles blew. With Uzbekistan eliminated, Syria’s chances remain alive.

 

It is tempting to root for Syria against Australia. Syria has never made the World Cup; it is amid a civil war; and it has not played a home game in seven years. The team is truly an underdog. But make no mistake, when the Syrian national soccer team takes the pitch, they are not representing the displaced people of Syria but instead socialist Assad.

 

Keep that in mind if you find yourself rooting for the team as they move forward

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