I have written about media literacy in regards to Syria in the past, and a recent Daily Mail piece on the Syrian national football team’s World Cup hopes offers another chance to dissect media narratives. We know that Syria has been engulfed in a bloody civil war for half a decade. Yet, despite international opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian “state” has not yet fully collapsed because there is still—on some small level—a modicum of national “identity” left in the battered nation-state. This tragic civil war shows the dangers of allowing division to triumph over dialogue, and a recent article regarding the Syrian national football team shows why alternative readings of modern media narratives are necessary to form independent positions of thought.

Journalist Ian Herbert of the Daily Mail wrote a piece on 30 September 2017 entitled “Syria are on the brink of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup… but will their team just be a propaganda tool for the murderous Assad regime?”. With all due respect to Mr. Herbert, I took from his article the opposite conclusion: It is possible that Syrian qualification for the World Cup would actually be a propaganda tool for FIFA instead? I came to this conclusion after a critical reading of the article, which I will share here.

In the article Mr. Herbert makes a few arguments that could lead the reader to an opposite conclusion, yet the title has already framed the issue at hand for readers; no independent analysis is necessary and the reader is made to believe that anything good that happens for Syria’s national football team is bad. That the headline should be one of the first signs of a biased media piece is not very surprising. In just the second and third sentences of this article, we are shown how evil the Assad regime is: “One of the national team’s goalkeepers was deemed an enemy of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and survived several assassination attempts. Another was jailed. A talented member of the nation’s Under 16 squad was killed by a bomb a few years ago”. An educated reader, of course, will already know that this is the case. It will not seem out of place; it fits with the headline.

 

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Just Who Stands To Gain From Syria’s Possible Qualification For The World Cup? Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-4936834/Syria-brink-World-Cup-just-propaganda.html

 

In the fifth sentence, we see the shift: “Such is the backdrop to the most extraordinary of all the World Cup play-off ties: Syria‘s journey to the brink of qualification. Beat Australia over two legs, and Syria will have one final qualifier — possibly against the USA, of all countries — to earn a place in Russia”. Here are the seeds of a feel good story, one fit for a Hollywood movie. The team from the war-torn country, that the West is saving from a tyrannical leader, will face their liberators (here Australia and possibly the United States) in football and play for a right to go to the World Cup. What a narrative it is.

The article goes on to inform us that the seeds of the team’s performance were planted in the midst of the Assad regime a decade ago:

 

As the [Syrian national] side progressed deep into the qualification stages, the charismatic [coach Ayman] Hakeem has persuaded several of a golden generation developed in the past decade to put their abhorrence of Assad to one side and return to the international fold.

 

But before we get to thinking that there was actually a positive aspect to life under Assad, the author wakes us up:

 

They include veteran striker Firas al-Khatib, whose young cousin was killed in an attack on Homs, and Omar al-Somah, Syria’s most celebrated footballer due to his goal-scoring exploits with Saudi club Al Ahli – but this is by no means the fairy tale it seems. 

Assad’s regime is providing the team’s finances and seeking a propaganda coup. In the early stages of qualification, some of the team’s players wore shirts featuring an image of Assad at a pre-match press conference. 

Making it to Russia would create the impression of normality and order in his country. It would also give a headache to FIFA, who vehemently oppose political interference in football.

 

It is shocking that the writer makes the reader believe that Syria’s success would be a boon for the Syrian regime and not the West. As the author explains, there are few in Syria who do not want their country to win—and the piece ends with this quote from striker Firas al Khatib:

 

The people could do with some kind of enjoyment and happiness. The reason why I have come back into the team is very complicated but I can’t talk more about these things. Better for me, better for my country, better for my family, better for everybody if I not talk about that, but if we can win and go the finals it will lift the people. The people deserve that.

 

I do not think one could find anyone from a Western audience who, after reading the quote above, would not support the Syrian national team. It would be very, very difficult not too. And it should not come as a surprise to anyone that this particular quote was the one selected to close the piece. So why does the title of this piece conflict so much with its contents?

Perhaps it is because the author does not want to dwell on the fact that there might just be life beyond politics. Maybe it does not all have to be about politics, maybe we can—for once—celebrate Syrians being able to come together for the purpose of supporting their national football team. Or maybe it is because there are clearly some footballers—like apparently Firas al Khatib—who have some sense of national identity left that they care to spend their energies for their country’s team, since this would go against the anti-nationalism rhetoric of Western media outlets like the Daily Mail. Or maybe it is even because the truth hurts too much: the truth might just be that Syrian qualification for the World Cup will mean a propaganda coup not for Assad, but for FIFA. After all, FIFA has far more to gain from Syria’s qualification. It will mean a feel-good story about a country pulling itself together against all the odds, and those stories always sell. An emotional story about Syria will also help FIFA sell the World Cup and paint over the fact that they gave the 2018 World Cup to Russia (where stadiums are in trouble according to The Daily Mail) and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a state sponsor of terrorism. In short, it seems like FIFA has much more to gain from Syrian qualification for the World Cup than Bashar al-Assad does.

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Russian Stadiums For the 2018 World Cup Are…Different. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-4947998/World-Cup-venue-Ekaterinburg-Arena-odd-new-stands.html

 

Who knows, with reporting like this, maybe the Russian football fans who branded the BBC “Blah Blah Channel” were right: mainstream media is too busy building narratives to actually report on anything in a non-biased objective way. Maybe it is because, in the age of 24 hour media available on the internet, journalists are no longer tied to their consumers. If no one pays for news anymore, then there is no longer a system of checks and balances. If journalists cannot be held accountable, then we–as the public–lose a valuable resource in the public sphere.
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Spartak Moscow Fans Voice Their Opinion. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/spartak-moscow-fans-brand-bbc-10056759

 

 

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