Sisyphus, no. 10

by quavaro

In January 2011, the Syrian national football team was knocked out of the Asian Cup in the group stage by regional rivals Jordan. Despite modest expectations, it was a disappointing result, as the Syrian team had raised hopes by defeating Saudi Arabia in their opening game. Against Jordan, the Syrian team controlled possession for long stretches but struggled to create meaningful chances. They took the lead after fifteen minutes, but then an own goal and a strike by Odai al-Saify in the 59th minute saw them eliminated from the tournament. Team officials and supporters generally chalked it up to bad luck, but if that is the case it has been an incredible run of bad fortune, as the team has never reached the Asian Cup quarterfinals and never qualified for the World Cup finals.

I struggle to understand the team’s history, as it is certainly not the passion for the game that is missing in Syria (and the Middle East at large). I am a Syrian transplant, and as a twelve year old, I returned for my first visit since immigrating to the US at age seven. In my old neighborhood, friends and cousins invited me to play football in the street. The makeshift field was a garbage-strewn, relatively flat stretch of asphalt between houses that were situated on the side of a minor mountain. I showed up in white Nikes that greatly suffered in the ubiquitous dust, while other players chose Adibas, sandals or their bare feet. I had played in a league in the US for a little while, but I quickly realized I was out of my depth. At that point in my life, on that pavement, the skill was intimidating, and the speed was striking, reckless even–a speed surely built of a Sisyphean chase and retrieval of footballs rolling down the hill. I had never at that point in my life been in the midst of such quality play, and it was a shock and a joy–the experience was two cameras away from an inspiring World Cup commercial.

The football culture is undoubtedly present and has been for a long time, from the cafes to the pitches to the streets of suburbs that seem like they would be wasteland but for their proximity to Damascus, but the structure of organized football in the country has stinted the growth of the game and rendered all hopes for the team futile. After the loss to Jordan, the Romanian coach of the team, Tita Valeriu minced no words:

“These players do not deserve to be in the national team. They have been playing together eight years and they have not won anything. They came to the Asian Cup and tried hard, but I think a new generation is needed in Syria.”

It’s a rather blunt assessment, but who can seriously disagree? The current players have had ample opportunities, and there is no shortage of talent, dedication or ambition among aspiring players. However, a fierce devotion to experienced players who repeatedly gain their places on the team in less-than-competitive circumstances prevents the development and growth of brilliant young players, who are desperate for opportunities but find themselves toiling beneath their class, pushing futilely forward on shabby grounds, dutifully retrieving stray balls.

Indeed it is Sisyphus as described by Albert Camus who best represents the hero of Syrian football–with a “passion for life” and a mordant, subversive attitude, condemned to roll the ball up the hill, only for it to fall back of its own weight, while the gods muse that “there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” However, Camus imagines Sisyphus’ descent of the hill as a great reprieve of pure consciousness, even a joy in which the hero can reflect upon the path he has chosen. The hero is content, whatever the consequences, to be for himself, and the punishment of the rock is the price of that victory–it is a small victory which constitutes for Camus the whole of meaningful human experience. “The struggle itself,” Camus writes, “is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Despite the futility of the toil of almost all aspiring players in the country, it is this attitude that I sense most often in young players, a pure joy for play, for creation and imagined glories. I know that they they are conscious of their situation, but they can’t help but hope for more as they dribble up that hill. For players who do reach the youth teams, it is a hope that can get them in serious trouble with the football establishment, resulting in benchings, torturous and counterproductive training sessions and dismissals of promising players who are never again heard from and subsequently forgotten.

There is a profound disillusionment toward the coaching staff and national team apparatus, and the families of many players are privately and publicly calling for a new direction for the team. The most passionate and obsessive national fans are calling for player strikes, and young fans are screaming for a team that meets their aspirations for international play. But what player’s mother in this family-centered country would ask their child to give up everything they’ve worked for all their lives for the hope of change? These actions take no small amount of courage. Camus’ Sisyphus defies the gods and faces the most dreadful punishment they can imagine, and yet finds joy in his existence. “Who had lived for one day could easily live for a hundred years in prison,” notes the main character Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger. Meanwhile, the football rolls toward the decline and everyone groans.

Nart Varoqua (twitter)