By Oliver Brown

It is one of sport's most seductive scripts: Syria, that global reference point for the futility of war, stands today within two playoffs of reaching the 2018 World Cup.

Out of the cinders of a savage conflict, and despite the depredations of a monstrous despot, a football team stands alone, undaunted, defiant.

Throw in a last-minute equaliser against Iran, a commentator in tears, photographs of rapt crowds in Damascus watching giant screens in an apparent cessation of hostilities, and you have the most poignant advert possible for football's power to unite.

Advertisement

This, at least, is the Pravda version, the type of sanitised romanceformer Fifa boss Sepp Blatter would always be fond of spinning.

The greatest trick the old devil ever pulled was convincing the world that football could elevate itself from the political fray. It became, for hubristic purposes, his evangelical crusade.

All it took was the introduction of a few 3G pitches in Palestine for him to presume that Fifa should receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Syria's journey to World Cup qualification is, by any gauge, improbable. Tarek Jabban, their assistant manager, earns 80 ($145) a week.

Their five home games have all been staged 7200km away in Malaysia, the one country who would host them despite international sanctions.

Their domestic league has fractured, with games held only in government-controlled areas.

And yet here they are, with a two-legged playoff against Australia and potentially one more against a Concacaf Confederation team lying between them and a first place in the finals.

Football, according to Syrian team spokesman Bashar Mohammad, is a "dream that brings people together - it gives people a smile and helps them forget the smell of destruction and death".

This narrative of a miracle is happily swallowed by more credulous news outlets such as Russia Today, the Kremlin-financed propaganda network that dare not rock the boat in Vladimir Putin's relationship with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad.

Syria's emotional World Cup qualifying run, including a 2-2 draw with Iran on Wednesday, is not the fairytale it might seem. Photo / AP
Syria's emotional World Cup qualifying run, including a 2-2 draw with Iran on Wednesday, is not the fairytale it might seem. Photo / AP

Look deeper, though, and this is no Cinderella story. This is a team representing a ruler accused by the United Nations of more than two dozen chemical weapons attacks on his own people.

Fifa, as always, sells the pup that football in Syria is politically neutral. Let us rewind, then, to a press conference prior to a match against Singapore in 2015, when former manager Fajer Ebrahim turned up wearing an Assad T-shirt.

"This is our President, and we are proud that Mr Bashar is our President," he said. "He is the best man in the world."

Contrast this with the sentiment of Firas Al-Ali, a defender for Syria until he discovered his teenage cousin had been killed in a government attack.

Now living in a tent with his wife and three children at Karkamis refugee camp, in southern Turkey, he has described representing the national team as a dishonour.

"I felt like I was betraying all the sons of our nation who had been killed by tyranny and oppression," he told ESPN. "Those players are carrying the flag of death."

Since the draw in Iran, there have been ludicrous suggestions that those on the field in Tehran reflected a diverse spectrum of pro- and anti-Assad opinion.

Take Firas Al-Khatib, Syria's captain, who in 2012 boycotted the team after his home city of Homs was subject to a devastating bombardment, in which rape and starvation were used as weapons of war.

He has been lured back, for no nobler reason than he happens to be one of the country's finest players, who once had a trial at Anderlecht.

The notion he is now at liberty to express dissent, though, is offensively naive. To any attempt at asking him about how, in good conscience, he can help promote a regime that murders and tortures at will, he replies that he cannot talk.

His reticence is understandable: Anas Ammo, once a football writer in Aleppo and now a sports writer in Mersin, Turkey, argues players are compelled to wear the shirt out of a fear the government will withhold their passports or even harm their relatives.

To question Syria's success in these latest qualifiers is to invite accusations of being a killjoy, of souring its one piece of good news across six years of turmoil and barbarity. Consider the alternative, though. To present it as a fairytale is to play blindly into Assad's hands.

He would love nothing better than for a prosperous football team to create the facade of a functioning state, or for the spectacle of an engaged public on Syrian streets to convey an illusion of civic order. For a man of his grotesque cynicism, sport serves as the softest and the easiest extension of power.

This, ultimately, is what football in Syria signifies. It is less a safe haven for the people to shield themselves from the daily slaughter than a means by which Assad can legitimise his authority.

In the estimation of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, his regime has "used athletes and sporting activities to support its brutal practices".

Naturally, Fifa does nothing even to express concern.

While the governing body has strict rules banning political interference in football it wrings its hands over Syria, shrugging that the situation is too complex for it to intervene.

Far better, in its view, for the Syrian team to be feted as poster boys for its football-as-salvation fallacy.

The cold reality, alas, is that sport has been co-opted as the shopfront for despicable tyranny. To pretend otherwise is not just reductive, but irresponsible.

- Telegraph Media Group