TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — A group of Syrian refugees, all former professional soccer players and members of the national youth team in the war-wrecked country, came together in neighboring Lebanon over the past year to execute an ambitious task: Form an opposition team in exile that would become Syria's national team after the fall of President Bashar Assad's government.
The squad of refugee players is formally known as the Free Syrian National Team. On rare occasions, when they play against a local club in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, they sport their version of the national uniform: black-and-white jerseys adorned with a Syrian revolutionarily flag with three — instead of two— stars, pressing against their hearts.
"Our goal is to wipe out the team, which plays in the name of the (Assad) regime," said Ammar, a 17-year-old midfielder in a recent interview with The Associated Press. He spoke on condition only his first name be used for fear of reprisals. Ammar is the only member of the squad who had fought Assad's forces alongside the rebels, trying to overthrow the government in Damascus.
After eight months on the battlefield, Ammar fled to neighboring Lebanon. He joined more than a million Syrian refugees and signed up with a group of former players, all opposition supporters-turned refugees, who are convinced they can change the government in Syria by playing soccer in exile.
"I carry on with the revolution, but I left my weapon behind," Ammar said. The ragtag group of players, aged 14 to 29, has no sponsors, no resources to speak of and no official backing from either the Western-backed opposition political bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, nor its military arm, known as the Free Syrian Army.
They don't even have the money to pay for a TV set to watch the World Cup in their one-bedroom apartment eight of them share for a rent of $250 a month. The $10,000 they collected during a fundraiser among wealthier Syrians in Lebanon was spent on soccer balls and shoes, rent, some food and water, and hourly fees of up to $35 to rent a soccer pitch for practice.
The players lost family members and friends in the conflict, and some are convinced they will avenge their deaths by playing soccer. Others hope their efforts will restore some national pride in millions of Syrians, who have been uprooted from their homes in the three-year conflict with no hope of returning soon.
"I joined the team because of all the people, who died in this war," said Sobhy al-Abed, 20-year-old defender. "I feel like I am doing something good for my people and my country. People will be proud of us and maybe it will give them hope that tomorrow the situation will be better."
For Khaled Samir, the team's manager, who drives the players to matches and practice around Tripoli in his beaten down white van, playing football under the revolutionary Syrian flag is no different than battling Assad's troops and pro-government militias.
"These players, who left teams in Syria and joined the opposition team, are just like the soldiers, who defected from the Syrian army and joined the rebels," Samir said. Most of the players hail from Syria's central city of Homs, dubbed the capital of the revolution since the uprising erupted in March 2011. Government forces unleashed a punishing crackdown on dissent and shelled the city relentlessly for two years until reaching a cease-fire in May.
Soccer was suspended after the conflict started and players either left the country or joined the revolt. That movement started with largely peaceful protests but gradually morphed into a civil war that has claimed more than 160,000 lives and displaced nearly a third of the country's population of 23 million.
"Most players and their families in Syria did not eat if they did not play soccer. It was our job, our salary, but we left the clubs because we believed in the revolution," said Nuhad Saadeldeen, 29-year-old captain of the opposition team and a father of two young children, both born refugees.
Like many of his teammates, Saadeldeen failed to finish grade school and can barely read and write. He grew up poor and his father, a butcher, put all his resources into his soccer talent, hoping that his son would make a profitable career out of it.
"Now my dream is much bigger," Saadeldeen said. "I want these guys to become really strong and proud players, so that one day we become the national team and we raise the revolutionary flag in a game that the whole world will be watching."
Soccer stadiums around the country have turned into battlefields. Government forces have used them as detention facilities. Rebels have targeted stadiums and facilities since last year, when the government tried to resume the domestic league, firing mortars during matches and training sessions, killing and wounding at least half a dozen players.
Syria was expelled from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers after it had fielded an ineligible player in its second-round win over Tajikistan in July 2011. The team failed to reach the continental tournament, set for January in Australia. Currently ranked 140th by FIFA, Syria has never made it to the knockout stage of the Asian Cup.
Earlier this year, Syria's league resumed and state TV has been broadcasting matches live as part of the government's effort to show that life is returning to normal after a string of military victories.
Eighteen clubs, divided into two groups, have been taking part, playing matches in front of largely empty stands. The final is set for June 27 in Damascus. The refugee players consider those still playing in Syria as traitors.
"They are not playing for their country and their people. They are playing for the regime only," said Ibrahim Akkar, 18-year-old striker, who had played abroad before the conflict as a member of Syria's national youth team.
"We play for our people, and even though we have no support, we play for a free Syria," Akkar said.
Associated Press writers Yasmine Saker in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.
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