Monday, March 5, 2012

Yes, Yes, Very Tragic, But What About The Soccer?

This is pretty much how this soccer book has forced me to think on occasion.

See, when you get deep enough into a book about the history and culture of soccer, inevitably, you are going to run into the history and culture of the world in general. It doesn't seem like it would, here in America, because it's just sports after all. The thing is, though, sports are as important as people deem them to be. And in much of the world, it's important enough that religion and race and class tensions and international tension and national pride and even the presence or absence of democracy get dragged into things.

In recent days, you can add the massacre in Homs, Syria to that list.

Massacre is really all you can call what's been going on in Homs over the past month. Unless you wish to call it 'genocide', which I'm noticing is a term increasingly used. Every day, more and more graphic images of Homs being shelled by the forces of Bashar al-Assad indiscriminately, concentrated on the neighborhood of Baba Amr, come out. More accounts of residents fleeing to the nearby Lebanese border, if they even can leave their house without risking sniper attacks or function in a state of pure, utter terror, knowing that if you don't leave eventually, someone will sooner or later kick the door down and shoot you where you stand. The fact that these accounts from residents still inside and refugees inside no longer are virtually all that exists as accounts now, given that the professional journalists have been run out of town for fear of being specifically targeted themselves. The Red Cross being refused entry to town, and at least one hospital that is in use being converted into a scene of torture. The endgame possibility of Homs being torn down to the ground and wiped off the map entirely.

And most distressingly, the growing feeling that it's become too late to stop, that by the inaction of the rest of the world, Homs has turned into the next Rwanda or Srebenica, where the world looked on, remarked about how tragic it all was, and then sat back and ultimately did nothing while innocent people were slaughtered like animals by the thousands. Any action taken, if any was taken at all, was only taken after the damage had been done.

Soccer, of course, is very, very low on the priority list. I don't even want to think about it at a time and place like this. But I have a book on soccer to write, it has a section on Syria, and as it happens, the Syrian club I had earlier chosen to profile, Al-Karamah (as I'm trying to do at least one per country), just so happens to be based in Homs. So as dirty as it makes me feel, in order to do this book properly, at some point I have to set the massacre aside and focus, on some level, on how this affects the club and soccer in Syria in general.

As it happens, Syria's top-tier league has not one, but two teams from Homs: Al-Karamah and Al-Wathda; both share a stadium, Khaled bin Walid Stadium, on Homs' west side. While I don't know for sure, it's very possible that the stadium is being used right now as either a prison or an execution site, as is, at least according to some tweets out of the area, the case with another stadium in Homs, al-Basil Stadium, south of Khaled bin Walid. This was also the use to which other stadiums in Syria were applied earlier in Syria's civil war.

Which makes what I'm seeing on a little strange.

Here's where we need to shift to thinking soccer. Unfortunately.

The way Syria's top-tier league has been working this season is this: the 16 teams in the league are split into two groups of eight. Those groups play amongst each other in a round-robin. After that, the top four teams in each group are placed in a second-round 'Champions Group' and play each other in a second round-robin for honors. The bottom four per group are placed in a 'Relegation Group' and play each other to remain in the top tier.

Homs' two clubs were placed in separate first-round groups, and both breezed into the Champions Group. Al-Wathba won their group, while Al-Karamah (shown on FIFA's league table as Al Karama) finished second in theirs. Both can be thought of as title contenders.

The first round took place during calendar year 2011. Calendar year 2012 shifted things to the second round. The other 14 teams have gone on as normal; in fact, there were games just yesterday. However, the two Homs teams have not played any second-round games. Their matches are listed as 'postponed'.

You'd expect that the Homs teams couldn't play. I'd be shocked if they did. But the thing is, I'm shocked that the other 14 teams are going on without them. It's not as if the rest of Syria is free of violence. And, again, other stadiums have been, or are currently being, used as prisons and execution sites. Presumably that would include the stadiums used by the other 14 clubs in the league. So how is this league still going on? How has this season not been cancelled? Seasons have been cancelled before all over the planet in times of war. The Syrian league was put on hold in April last year, during this same conflict, and ultimately cancelled. In fact, the cancellation is why this season has 16 teams instead of 14; they didn't get a chance to relegate anyone last season.

I'm not exactly expecting anyone to look seriously into it, given that there are a thousand things more important. But it does seem weird that something that would stop everyone a year ago wouldn't stop anyone but the Homs teams now.

That is, assuming that when it's all said and done, there will still be a Homs in which to play.

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