Barely two kilometeres away from Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, in the cosy surroundings of a five-star hotel, Firas al-Khatib is talking about bombings, murders and unending violence.
Syria’s all-time leading goal-scorer hates confrontations. But for the last eight years, he has been at the centre of one of Syria’s biggest ideological battles between the followers and dissidents of the country’s president Bashar al-Asaad. In 2012, Al-Khatib turned his back on the national team, boycotting them after the government, he claims, bombed his hometown Homs during the civil war that began a year before. Then, in a spectacular U-turn, he returned to the national team in 2017 to assist them in their qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup.
His rebellion and return triggered extreme responses from his, and Syrian football’s, supporters. Al-Khatib smiles when you show him a couple of comments on his Facebook page from 2012. One read: “You are a dog, Firas. Damn your soul.” There’s another, which goes: “Firas, my hero, we need you. Syria needs you.”
These are just a couple of samples from Al-Khatib’s social media page, which is flooded with extreme emotional outbursts. “At that time, there were 12 million people in Syria who wanted to kill him. And the other 12 million supported him,” says a Syrian fan from Latakia, who was in Ahmedabad for the Intercontinental Cup match against India last week.
When he announced his comeback, the feelings of the fans had not changed. But they swapped positions – those who once supported him felt betrayed. “Your end will be terrible… sold your religion and blood of the martyrs. You have the curse of God!” a fan vented on the same Facebook page. Another wrote: “Welcome, legend. God protect you. Big hug.”
Al-Khatib is aware of the significance of both his decisions. Largely considered to be Syria’s greatest player ever, every move he makes and every word he utters carries a lot of weight. He insists both his decisions were the right ones in the circumstances that prevailed at that point. “The war was becoming too dangerous,” he says, carefully choosing his words. “I took the right decision back then. This is my country, eventually. Now, I have returned to help my country to come back stronger.”
The 36-year-old is broad-shouldered and bearded, with sharp features and compassionate eyes. He has been playing outside Syria since 2001 – in Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq and China, where Shanghai Shenhua gave him the jersey number that belonged to Didier Drogba. He sparked interest from clubs Belgium and England but wasn’t given a work permit when Nottingham Forest were keen to sign him.
He credits his success to Syria’s youth structure, which routinely churns out technically and physically strong players. “The youth system in Syria produces very strong players. I’m a product of that. They don’t pay a lot of money but take proper care. The clubs will give you coaching, education, food… and if they sign a player from their youth team, then the rule is to give a five-year contract initially. A player does not have to worry about his future,” Al-Khatib says.
But the war changed everything. Clubs ran out of money to invest in youth teams and the system crumbled. “The young players had nowhere to play – the ones who are here are the ones who trained just before 2011 so they are well developed. But maybe we will struggle for the next five, six years until we start nurturing talented players again,” he says.
This was also the time when he was in exile. Al-Khatib says the five years he spent outside Syria – mostly in Kuwait – were a struggle. As he lived a comfortable life and earned millions in salaries, those close to him became victims of the war. In 2013, a Homs-based player – Yussef Suleiman – died after a mortar fell as he was training with his teammates in the outskirts of Damascus. Three years later, Al-Khatib’s teammate from youth club Al Karama and former Syria captain Jihad Qassab died after two years detention. “You hear about people dying every day. My family was there. Friends, teammates… I couldn’t go back to help them.”
He eventually did, but is reluctant to talk about what led to the change of heart and return to the national team. The government granted him and his teammate Omar Al-Somah, who too had rebelled against Al-Asaad, mercy as they ‘did not have blood on their hands’, according to a Reuters report.
Now, he looks hopefully at the future – not as a player but as a coach. Al-Khatib says he is considering to retire from international football after six months, following a discussion with the federation. Once he hangs his boots, he wishes to focus completely on his academy, which he started in Homs after his return. More than 1,000 kids train there every day, he says, including is two sons – Hamza (13) and Ahmed (9). “Inshallah, they will play for Syria too,” he says.
The supporters, too, are beginning to soften their stance. “If you like somebody but he has a different philosophy and you don’t support, it’s okay,” says Rifa’at N’deeb, one of the supporters who has travelled to Ahmedabad to watch Syria take on India. “We all love him as a player. There’s not going to be another Firas.”